The wild ride of Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysia’s opposition leader sprints through the final stages of a campaign that has brought him to the brink of power.

Anwar Ibrahim [Eric Chow/Al Jazeera]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim has had only three hours sleep.

In the past 12 days, Malaysia’s opposition leader had criss-crossed the entire country, stumping for his coalition’s candidates and driving home its message of change.

The punishing schedule has left his campaign bus in the mechanic’s workshop, but with the election just days away, Anwar is still full of energy.

“It’s a job for crazy people,” 65-year-old Anwar chuckled on Wednesday. “It’s not for the sane.”

A little later, Anwar leaves his comfortable home, in an area of Kuala Lumpur known more for its scruffy wooden houses and pot-holed streets than its fancy villas, and headed west.

The four-car convoy is running behind schedule. It’s no journey for the speed-shy or faint of heart.

A sizeable crowd is waiting on the muddy field where Anwar is due to speak. He’s swallowed up by an enthusiastic group of supporters almost as soon as he leaves the car.

They chant “ubah”, the Malay word for change, and “reformasi“, reform; the clarion cries of the opposition.

With the campaign in its final stages, Anwar’s three-party alliance, Pakatan Rakyat, can sense that power may finally be almost within its grasp.

Anwar is in his element. He teases the crowd, woos them, makes them laugh and cheer. It’s hard to imagine he’s had so little sleep.

“No power on earth can stop the power of the people,” he thundered.

The audience roars in agreement.

Tough times

It’s more than a decade since the tumultuous year when Malaysia felt the full force of the Asian financial crisis. The year was 1998 and then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar from his positions as finance minister and deputy prime minister, before Anwar was charged with sodomy and abuse of power following an alleged homosexual affair.

The lurid trial that followed provoked both embarrassment – the mattress stained in the alleged trysts was frequently carried into court  – and shame – Anwar appeared for one hearing with a black eye following his beating at the hands of the then-police chief.

In the end, the former highflyer was found guilty.

He was sentenced to six years in jail on corruption charges, and later ordered to remain in prison for a further nine years for sodomy. The second conviction was overturned in 2004, and he was released.

It was a spectacular fall for someone Mahathir had identified as a potential successor.

In 1982, Mahathir convinced the former student firebrand and Islamic youth activist to join the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and had promoted him quickly through the ranks.

Sankara Nair was one of five lawyers who defended Anwar at his 1998 trial. For six years, he visited Anwar three times a week, taking books – everything from Islamic texts to Shakespeare, economic theory and the classics – as well as notes and cards from well-wishers and family.

Once a week his wife and children were allowed into the jail to see him.

“Family visits were so important to him while he was in prison,” Sankara told Al Jazeera.

“He would try to spend as much time with them as he could, whether it was in jail or on his court appearances. Without them, he would have fallen apart.”

Opposition momentum

Anwar’s family helped publicise his case internationally. His eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, then just 18, travelled the world to highlight her father’s plight and to speak to the United Nations.

At home, wife Wan Azizah Ismail set up the Keadilan political party, now part of the Pakatan coalition, to push for Anwar’s freedom, and wider democratic reforms.

Anwar’s family stressed the charges were politically motivated, but the party made little impact in the 2004 polls, when Barisan won by a landslide.

By 2008, with Anwar released and back in politics, the opposition parties were able not only to deprive Barisan of its two-thirds majority but to win control of five states.

Now, with Anwar at its helm, the opposition faces its best-ever chance of wresting power from Barisan, which has governed Malaysia in one form or another since the country’s independence.

His political partners say they have no concerns about their leader’s past, insisting Anwar’s understanding of Barisan’s inner workings helps in the fight to unseat the ruling coalition.

“It is a strength rather than a weakness,” Tian Chua, Keadilan’s vice president, told Al Jazeera.

“You need to have a leader who was once part of the system to understand it and make the change. Anwar is charismatic enough to hold the opposition forces together. I don’t think many people have that quality.”

Religious concerns

Pakatan’s promise to tackle corruption, reduce the cost of living and promote more inclusive government has resonated strongly among urban voters.

Even in Putrajaya, the UMNO-dominated administrative capital, in the middle of a hot, tropical afternoon, thousands turned out to greet him and the city’s PAS candidate, Husam Musa.

Taking shelter in the sun, even Anwar’s aides admitted they were shocked at the size of the crowd, all the more so in a city that was one of Mahathir’s pet projects and cost billions of dollars to build.

“He’s a man who’s been to heaven and hell in all aspects of his life,” said businessman Stanley Thai, who has contributed funds to Anwar’s party. “He’s probably experienced the highest and lowest in life and changed a lot because of that.”

Even after his 2004 release from prison, when the judge freed him six years to the day of his arrest, Anwar’s legal troubles have continued. In 2008, he was charged a second time for sodomy, a criminal offence in Malaysia.

Acquitted in 2012, the prosecutor is appealing the decision and his accuser continues to push the case. A tape appearing to show Anwar allegedly having sex with a woman who was not his wife has also surfaced.

Still, it’s not the alleged sex scandals that make some Malaysians wary of Anwar, it’s that they doubt his political principles and fear that he would allow the country to become an Islamic state.

As a minister, Anwar had a mixed record, clumsily introducing a standardised version of the national language, and following International Monetary Fund prescriptions for austerity to deal with the financial crisis.

Others worry about his religious convictions. After all, Anwar was a one-time leader of the Islamic youth movement.

“He’s a political chameleon,” said Siti Zabedah Kassim, a lawyer and activist. “I don’t care whether he’s a homosexual or a bisexual, but he’s hiding his true self. He’s a hard-core believer.”

Final chance

Barisan continues to play on these worries. Pamphlets and booklets questioning Anwar’s suitability to lead the country are distributed at member parties’ rallies.

The mainstream media warns Pakatan will introduce Hudud law – one of four categories of punishment in Sharia – if it wins on Sunday, even though that would need a change to the constitution. Only last week, Mahathir accused Anwar of being a liar and repeated allegations of sexual misconduct.

Anwar denies such charges. He says he’s stuck by his principles and that prison only reinforced his belief in the need for democracy, the rule of law and justice.

“Had I been a conformist within UMNO I would have remained in the party,” he told Al Jazeera. “I would have become prime minister, but we failed in the reform agenda in UMNO.

“They are in a state of denial. They refuse to acknowledge endemic corruption [and] the racist agenda is continuing. Prison was no bed of roses, but it has given [me] time to reflect, meditate and be more passionate on the issue of freedom, justice and humanitarian ideas.”

At one of six rallies he spoke at this week in Kuala Lumpur, before heading south to Johor state, Anwar worked for every vote.

He paced the stage, assuring his audience that he would govern for all of them – regardless of ethnicity.

Afterwards, the man who faces possibly his last chance to become prime minister made his way back through the crowd, shaking hands and acknowledging well-wishers

Soon, Anwar was on his way, escorted by a convoy of flag-carrying bike riders, to his next appointment.

Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry

Source: Al Jazeera