Malaysia’s longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim soared to the heights of power in the 1990s, fell spectacularly from grace amid scandals, only to have risen once again to the brink of the country’s top leadership position.
But on May 5, Anwar failed again, losing out to the ruling coalition in the most hotly contested race since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
“It is an election that we consider fraudulent and the EC (Election Commission) has failed,” an exhausted-looking Anwar said after the announced returns dashed early hopes among his supporters that victory was at hand.
Among irregularities alleged by the opposition, Anwar has said tens of thousands of “dubious” and possibly foreign voters were flown to key constituencies to sway results.
The government denies the charge.
Anwar brought his multi-ethnic coalition Pakatan Rayat against the ruling Barisan Nasional in a vote that has been described as the opposition’s best chance yet to oust the pro-Malay government that has been in power for almost 60 years.
“I will try my best. I am confident we will win. But if not, I will step down,” Anwar said last year in a Google Hangout session that was streamed live on the internet.
Since the interview, he had confirmed his intention to leave politics if Pakatan fails to unseat the coalition led by his bitter rival, Prime Minister Najib Razak.
But as he fails to recognise his rival’s victory, his resignation could be delayed.
Anwar, who has previously held academic posts at Oxford and George Washington University, said he will return to lecturing.
Anwar led the opposition charge in 2008 general elections that shocked Barisan by winning five states and coming just a few percentage points from triumphing in the popular vote. He has campaigned for this year’s polls on a platform of fighting corruption and rolling back race-based policies that favour ethnic-majority Malays.
His competition said Pakatan is too divided to lead the country and alleged that the opposition will derail the country’s robust economy.
Malaysian opposition leader speaks to Al Jazeera
Anwar was born on August 10, 1947, in a village near Penang. According to various accounts, his father was a hospital porter and his mother a housewife.
Described as charismatic and reform-minded, Anwar first rose to prominence as a radical pro-Islam student leader in the 1970s. He was involved in organising mass demonstrations and was once jailed under the now-defunct Internal Security Act.
During this time, Anwar caught the eye of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who would become prime minister in 1981 and remain in office until he retired in 2003. Anwar proved to be a natural politician, rising quickly in the United Malays National Organisation, a massive party of three million members that still dominates the Barisan coalition.
He headed various ministries before taking the key finance ministry portfolio in 1991, and was lionised in the West for his reformist image. Two years later, he was all but anointed Malaysia’s future leader when he was named deputy prime minister, a post he held until 1998.
But as Asian economies toppled in the 1998 regional financial crisis, a bitter rift emerged with Mahathir, who was infuriated by Anwar’s calls for reform and an end to corruption and nepotism. Previously, his relationship with Mahatir had been described as like a father and son.
Anwar was seen by many at the time to have misplayed his hand, underestimating the proud and canny Mahathir. After the disagreement, he was sacked and later charged with corruption and sodomy, a crime in conservative Malaysia.
The sodomy charge arose from a book entitled “50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister”, which Anwar obtained an injunction against and sued the author for defamation. Even so, Anwar was convicted of sodomy and graft and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The drama riveted and shocked Malaysians and drew worldwide criticism. At one point Anwar was brought into court with a black eye after a beating from the country’s police chief, who was later convicted of assault.
The case against Anwar was widely seen in Malaysia and abroad as politically motivated, triggering massive protests in a country where dissent is suppressed. Anwar was jailed and finally released in 2004, when the sodomy charge was partially overturned.
Shortly after the 2008 vote, however, he was hit with fresh charges for allegedly sodomising a former male aide who filed a report of the incident to police. After a nearly two-year trial, Anwar was found innocent in January 2012. The charges revived accusations of political mudslinging by the ruling coalition meant to stall the resurgent opposition.
Malaysian politics was left polarised by Anwar’s ouster, and by 2007 he was campaigning for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, a centrist party formally headed by his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who had emerged as an opposition leader while Anwar was jailed.
Wan Azizah, an Ireland-trained doctor, held a parliament seat in northern Malaysia during his political exile. She stood aside in 2008 to make way for Anwar when his five-year ban from public office, related to his earlier conviction, expired. Anwar was greeted by a crowd of some 40,000 people upon his return to politics.
The couple has six children, five of them girls. Their 32-year-old daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar was elected to parliament in 2008.
Anwar is famous for his speech-making and ability to captivate a crowd in a country where few politicians have the common touch. He is also viewed as the only man who could have brought together the diverse opposition parties: a conservative ethnic Malay Islamic party, a secular party largely representing ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, and Anwar’s own multiracial party.
Anwar came as close as he has ever been to his ultimate goal in 2013. But on May 5, he lost the chance to become the leader of his country.