Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says he has no moral qualms about toppling the government with lawmaker defections, claiming the country cannot afford to wait four years for the next elections to bring about change.
“Four years will be disastrous for the economy, the political system, the judiciary,” Anwar told The Associated Press late Saturday while on a campaign trail.
Anwar will contest a Tuesday by-election from the northern district of Permatang Pauh for a seat in Parliament. He is expected to win easily despite facing an imminent trial on the charge of sodomizing a male aide, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Anwar’s aides say a large group of ruling coalition lawmakers is waiting for him to enter Parliament so they can defect. A former deputy prime minister with ambitions for the top job, Anwar has said he will bringing down the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by Sept. 16.
In general elections on March 8, Anwar’s three-party opposition alliance won an unprecedented 82 of Parliament’s 222 seats — 30 short of a majority — as well as control of five states.
Anwar rejected criticism that a government formed by defections would have no moral authority to rule. He said the opposition would have come to power anyway had the elections been totally fair.
Also, the country is reeling from economic mismanagement and corruption, and should not have to wait for four years to change the government, he said.
“Number one, you have a situation where the election was stolen from you. Number two, there is no direction, no leadership. Can you imagine — with this leadership, this policy, this crime rate, this economy — can the country manage and survive for four years?” he said.
“My point is, we will lose a lot if we wait for four years,” he said in the interview in his car while traveling from a public meeting to a mosque for evening prayers.
Anwar could not contest the March elections because of a ban on holding political office stemming from a previous corruption conviction. It was slapped on him in 1998 when he was also charged and later convicted of sodomy. The sodomy conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2004, but the political ban remained in force until April.
Anwar’s campaign machinery in his district has overshadowed that of the ruling National Front despite the presence of top government leaders, including Abdullah and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.
While Anwar’s campaign rallies have attracted thousands, the National Front meetings have been sparsely attended. Permatang Pauh, a rural district in the northern state of Penang, has been an Anwar stronghold since 1982.
The seat was won by his wife in the March elections with a whopping majority of 13,388 votes. She later vacated the seat to allow Anwar, a charismatic speaker who peppers his speeches with earthy jokes and sometimes fiery rhetoric, to contest it.
On Saturday, many among the audience including a woman in a wheelchair rushed to touch him and whisper words of encouragement — “We are with you!” and “Fight on!” — as he walked to his car.
Some in the ruling elite say they will consider it a moral victory if they can reduce Anwar’s victory margin.
“It would not be easy at all,” Koh Tsu Koon, a top ruling coalition politician, told the AP. “We still say we are the underdogs. It is a matter of whether the majority would be reduced.”
Najib was more optimistic.
“We have a fighting chance. … We know we have an uphill battle, but the impossible can happen,” Najib told reporters. He urged his supporters “not to think that we don’t have any chance of wresting the seat.”
Anwar has appealed to minority ethnic Chinese and Indians by promising racial equality and equal opportunities in jobs and education. To the majority Malays, he promises a corruption-free administration. And to all races, he promises a massive cut in fuel prices, a major issue with Malaysians, who were hit with a 43 percent hike in gasoline prices in June.
The government reduced the fuel price slightly on Saturday in a move seen by the opposition as a political ploy to win voters.
Anwar’s popularity has not diminished despite an accusation in June that he sodomized a male aide — a charge he says is part of a political conspiracy.
His supporters agree.
“From the start, there have been so many obstacles to stop him from contesting,” said Hamidah, a government worker. She did not give her full name for fear of retribution.
“We see rampant corruption in the government. We hope Anwar wins and brings good changes,” she said.
(Associated Press reporter Eileen Ng contributed to this report)