'You have to be prepared for a long battle': The second coming of Anwar Ibrahim

He rose to the top, then ended up in jail. Now Malaysia’s opposition leader stands on the verge of a remarkable election victory

He has been arrested and jailed and his reputation repeatedly dragged through the mud, but Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim believes his time has finally come.

On Sunday, Malaysia goes to the polls in what experts have called the closest and most hotly contested election since the country secured independence from Britain 56 years ago.

“All the surveys, including the government of Malaysia’s, have shown we are leading,” Mr Ibrahim told The Independent, speaking by phone from Kuala Lumpur. “But we have to take care to look for bias and fraud in the electoral process. We are appealing to the international community and the media to follow the election very closely.”

The 65-year-old heads the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) opposition coalition, which is trying to defeat the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) bloc, which has held power in Malaysia since 1957. He is doing so by highlighting alleged corruption, authoritarianism and laws that favour ethnic Malays over their Indian- and Chinese-origin countrymen and women.

Since independence, the nation has emerged as a success story of economic growth and development (after a brief recession in 2009, its GDP is once again on the rise). It has also avoided the worst of the turmoil that has affected other countries in the region. But critics say it has done so at the cost of human rights, openness and freedom of expression. They also say corruption is rife.

“It’s such an authoritarian system. We need to transform the country into a vibrant democracy,” said Mr Ibrahim. “There is no independent media, we have racist policies. We need to have a more transparent system that recognises the value of all relationships, irrespective of race.”

The veteran opposition leader has been speaking at rallies across the country at which he highlights what he says is widespread nepotism within the government, headed by the British-educated Prime Minister, Najib Razak. He believes the mood in the country suggests the public is ready to back him and he talks of a “Malaysian spring”.

He has also been making repeated claims that the ruling party is engaged in efforts to rig the election; earlier this week he issued a statement claiming the Prime Minister’s office was hiring charter planes to fly in up to 40,000 “ghost voters” from its strongholds to vote in close races elsewhere in the country. A government spokesperson did not respond to The Independent’s request for a comment. Beating the National Front coalition is no easy matter for Mr Ibrahim. It holds 135 of the parliament’s 222 seats, compared with the 75 held by Mr Ibrahim; and ahead of the elections, Mr Razak, the son of one of Malaysia’s founding fathers, has also introduced a series of populist measures designed to win votes. Agence France-Presse recently reported that Mr Razak is also motivated by the knowledge that if he loses the contest, he will likely face a leadership challenge within his own party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Opinion polls last month suggested the race was too close to call, or else gave a narrow edge to the ruling party. But a survey published last week, conducted by the University of Malaya’s Centre for Democracy and Elections, suggested the opposition was slightly in the lead.

Should Mr Ibrahim achieve victory, it would represent a remarkable turn-around. In the early 1990s, the son of a hospital porter rose through the ranks of one of the ruling National Front parties to be the protégé of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Widely hailed in the West as a reformist, Mr Ibrahim held a series of government portfolios, including the finance ministry, before being appointed deputy prime minister in 1998. But the two men, who had been described as being like father and son, fell out over Mr Ibrahim’s repeated calls for reform.

Sacked from office, he was then accused of sodomy, which remains a crime in Malaysia. The allegations were contained within a book – 50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister – written by the editor of a government-controlled newspaper. Despite many seeing them as politically motivated, Mr Ibrahim spent six years in jail. He was released in 2004. In 2008, the opposition leader challenged the government at the polls, for the first time threatening its simple majority. In the aftermath of that election, fresh allegations of sodomy were made, this time by a former aide. Mr Ibrahim again insisted he was innocent, and in January 2012, following a trial that lasted two years, he was acquitted.

The opposition leader said the time he spent in jail had not been easy. “After I was released in 2004, I was invited by Nelson Mandela to spend time in Johannesburg,” he said. “I joked that my release had been a ‘short walk to freedom’ [a reference to the title of Mr Mandela’s autobiography]. We have faith and conviction that the country can be freed from authoritarian rule and the economy can be changed to serve the country and the masses.

“Of course, at times, during solitary confinement you think about your wife and family,” he said. “And you think that there might be other options and the political leadership might be more open too. But the fact is that if you want to dismantle a country’s system, they are not going to give up power easily. You have to be prepared – it’s a long battle.”

Dr Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, head of the Malaysia programme at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he believed Mr Ibrahim could tap into growing public dissatisfaction about corruption and “crony capitalism”.

He said his coalition would also draw support from ethnic Indians and Chinese fed up with what they see as inequalities, such as reservation of university places for ethnic Malays. And yet, he said, should Mr Ibrahim lead the opposition coalition to victory at the weekend, it would represent nothing less than a remarkable achievement. “To come back once from a political death is remarkable, but to come back two times would be a feat very few leaders have achieved,” he said. “It’s amazing. No one would have thought that prior to 2008, Anwar Ibrahim could be the next prime minister of the country.”

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