Former Malaysian deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim has hit the campaign trail for the first time since his release from jail, this time supporting the Muslim opposition and promising to tackle government corruption and incompetence.
"I declare that tonight will open a new chapter in Malaysia's political history. Malaysia will be more prosperous, peaceful, corruption-free, with true justice," he told a 10,000-strong crowd of spectators on Sunday.
Anwar's stump speech for the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), which faces a critical 6 December by-election in northern Kelantan, the only state it controls, represents a major step back onto Malaysia's political landscape.
After being freed in September 2004 after six years in jail on corruption and sodomy charges, Anwar's aides say his goal is simple - to be a thorn in the side of the government led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
"There's talk about strong efforts by UMNO to prevent me from coming ... . But if I'm free, I have a voice," the 58-year-old told the crowd in this rural electorate, drawing shouts of approval.
PAS supporters, who normally respond with "Allahu akbar" or "God is the greatest", clapped exuberantly throughout his speech.
Clearly relishing being back in the limelight, Anwar made a movie-star exit from the stadium, which was packed to overflowing, triggering a near-stampede as the crowd pushed to greet him.
Once considered an Asian political star, in 1998 Anwar was famously sacked, arrested and beaten up by the then-police chief in a saga that made world headlines and overshadows Malaysia to this day.
Anwar was beaten up after his
arrest in 1998
He is barred from holding political office until 2008 because of the corruption charge, which he says was manufactured to prevent him threatening the dominance of his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad.
But he has said he still has ambitions of returning to power, in league with the opposition People's Justice Party, or Keadilan, which is led by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
Keadilan and PAS are members of the Alternative Front, an informal opposition alliance against the ruling UMNO-led National Front that controls the national government and every state except Kelantan.
In an interview, Anwar sidestepped questions about whether he had ruled out rejoining UMNO.
"I have never condemned the general UMNO members, because UMNO members have close affinity to me, they continue to meet me... despite the harassment from the police special branch and continued media attacks," he said.
"There's talk about strong efforts by UMNO to prevent me from coming ... . But if I'm free, I have a voice"
Former Malaysian deputy prime minister
And when asked about his plans for his political future, he replied only: "Que sera sera (what will be, will be)."
During his speech, he criticised the government over corporate controversies that hint of corruption and incompetence, including huge losses in state-run companies such as Malaysia Airlines, Proton and Bank Islam.
He slammed the ruling coalition, accusing it of "stealing from the people" and of failing to root out corruption despite winning the 2004 general elections in a landslide on an anti-graft agenda.
Anwar told AFP that these issues, along with police brutality and injustice, would be central to his campaign as he re-enters politics.
"Of course I want to explain ... why I chose to defend UMNO politics then and oppose strongly PAS, and why the circumstances changed. Primarily due to the corruption and general decadence in UMNO and BN (National Front)," he said.
The election campaign is under
way in northern Kelantan
"The fact remains that corruption is more endemic now, is more rampant - this is worrying.
"(Abdullah) has to review the entire policy. If you continue to keep corrupt ministers, corrupt UMNO leaders, and you go and shout about anti-corruption, very soon we are going to be a laughing stock."
Asked how it felt to be back on the campaign trail after a year spent re-establishing his networks both inside the country and abroad, he said: "It's picking up, getting back the motion. Certainly, it takes time. It's a big difference from academic life."