GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia — Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia’s opposition, easily defeated his opponent from the country’s ruling coalition in a closely watched by-election on Tuesday, making a return to Parliament after a decade-long absence.
Official results from Malaysia’s election commission showed Mr. Anwar winning about two-thirds of the vote in his home district of Permatang Pauh, in northern Penang State, despite heavy campaigning by senior officials from the country’s longstanding governing coalition.
Mr. Anwar won 31,195 votes compared with 15,524 for the government candidate, Arif Shah Omar Shah, amid a high voter turnout of 81 percent.
The victory makes it theoretically possible for Mr. Anwar to carry out his promise to win over enough members of the coalition by mid-September, to form his own government and become prime minister.
“We are entering Parliament with a clear agenda and they should wake up with the stark realities of the day,” Mr. Anwar said Tuesday, referring to the governing coalition.
It is a triumphant return for the 61-year-old politician, who first rose to prominence as a student radical in the 1970s, was elected to Parliament and held the post of deputy prime minister before being dismissed from government and jailed for sodomy and corruption in highly politicized trials.
For the first time since independence from Britain in 1957, Malaysia has two almost equally powerful opposing political forces in Parliament with two very different visions for the country’s future.
The National Front coalition, which previously enjoyed negligible opposition during five decades in power, long justified its authoritarian policies of detention without trial, bans on student involvement in politics and control over the media, among other measures, as the will of the people, who consistently gave it landslide victories.
But that argument is now much less persuasive to many Malaysians. Mr. Anwar’s allies took control of some of the wealthiest states in the country in March elections, including Penang, which is home to both Mr. Anwar and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Mr. Anwar’s plans have been complicated by an upcoming sodomy trial stemming from fresh allegations by a former campaign aide. The case does not appear to have hurt his standing among voters — a large majority of Malaysians surveyed in recent opinion polls believe the charges are politically motivated. Mr. Anwar was sentenced to nine years in prison for sodomy a decade ago but the conviction was overturned by the country’s highest court.
Mr. Anwar’s platform calls for abolishing or scaling back Malaysia’s most draconian laws and ending the system of ethnic preferences for the majority Malays. His wide margin of victory on Tuesday was a significant boost for those plans, analysts say, because Mr. Anwar retained support among Malays despite his pledge to undo some of their privileges.
Mr. Anwar and his allies have also said they would make the handing out of government contracts more transparent than the system of no-bid contracts that is common today.
“One of the things that has held this country back is the issue of corruption — resources are not being distributed in a way that is fair to the vast majority of people,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysian politics specialist at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
“What you’re seeing now is the rise of the voice of people wanting change for a broader constituency than just the elite.”
Mr. Anwar and his allies need at least 30 more seats in Parliament to unseat the governing coalition, a promise they say they will carry out by Sept. 16.
Tricia Yeoh, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies, said she believed there was enough infighting and disaffection within the governing party that these defections were feasible. But Anwar’s opposition movement is still young and its unity could fray if it moves too quickly into power, she said.
“I do think they have sufficient numbers,” Ms. Yeoh said of Anwar and his allies. “The issue is whether it’s the best and most strategic move for him now.”
Mr. Anwar leads a loose grouping of opposition parties that have clashed over whether Malaysia should be considered an Islamic state.
Although a majority of Malaysians are Muslim and Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, the country also has large Chinese and Indian minorities, among other ethnic groups.
Mr. Anwar must also reckon with a deeply entrenched elite that has a vested interest in the continuation of the current ethnic-based political system.
Malaysia’s urban upper class, Ms. Yeoh said, “is still a bit skeptical on how Anwar will be able to deliver.”
P/s: Yay! We win...!!! Ops...