07 January, 2009

Malaysia's Anwar renews pledge to topple government

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday renewed his vow to seize power from the ruling coalition, as the two sides lock horns for a key by-election.

Anwar has laid low since failing to meet a self-imposed September 2008 deadline to unseat the Barisan Nasional government, after general elections that saw the coalition handed its worst results in half a century.

The opposition alliance is now hoping to reinvigorate itself with a win in the January 17 by-election in northeastern Terengganu state, which is seen as a referendum on the political mood since the March 2008 national polls.

"I want to say that we in the alliance are determined to topple the Barisan Nasional coalition," Anwar said at an opposition rally here late Tuesday that drew some 10,000 supporters.

"For a start, I will help our alliance candidate from PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) obtain a big victory," he said on the seafront of the state capital Kuala Terengganu.

Top figures in the alliance -- Anwar's Keadilan as well as the Islamic party PAS and the Democratic Action Party that represents ethnic Chinese -- stood shoulder-to-shoulder to dispel signs the partnership is under strain.

The partnership of three ideologically divided parties is intent on putting its differences aside for the by-election, which will be contested by PAS candidate Mohamad Abdul Wahid, 52.

The ruling party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) is fielding deputy home minister Wan Ahmad Farid, 46, for the vote, which will indicate whether it has lured back support since the general elections.

Anwar had said he would topple the government by mid-September with the help of defecting lawmakers, after elections that saw the opposition gain five states and a third of parliamentary seats in unprecedented results.

But that deadline came and went and the promised mass defections from the Barisan Nasional never materialised -- underlining the dominance of the coalition which is the only government Malaysia has ever known.

Anwar's momentum completely stalled in October when Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi agreed to stand down next March, defusing public anger at the government's handling of the economy and failure to introduce promised reforms.

The government is now exploiting bickering within the opposition, but Anwar said the alliance was united despite disagreements over issues such as a PAS call for the introduction of Islamic "hudud" law including the stoning of adulterers.

And he said that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is slated to take over from Abdullah in March and is spearheading the by-election campaign, would suffer if the government loses.

"Najib is heading the Barisan Nasional machinery and if Barisan loses, it will hurt his credibility. The loss to the government will be a big blow to Najib," he said.

"It is a barometer for the future direction of politics in Malaysia," he said. "As I see it, the winds of change from the March 8 electoral tsunami are still blowing strong."

DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang said Najib may be forced to call elections much earlier than the end of the government's five-year term which expires in 2013.

"We hope a victory here will be a yardstick for us to win the next general election and take over the country. It is possible that a snap election would be held at year end," he said.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim also drew parallels last night between the conflict in Gaza and what he called the sufferings of Malaysians as he hit the campaign trail at a mammoth rally attended by thousands here.

Attempting to touch a sensitive chord among the mainly Muslim constituency here, he accused Umno, the main party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, of acting like Israel.

"The leadership is busy collecting wealth. While Israel is punishing the Palestinian people for choosing Hamas, it is no different from Umno punishing Malaysians for choosing the Pakatan Rakyat," he told a ceramah here on the first day of campaigning for the Kuala Terengganu by-election.

With a majority of Malaysia's Muslims backing the Palestinian cause, Israel's ongoing invasion of Gaza is having a major impact on domestic politics.tonight

Political leaders from either side of the divide have been busy burnishing their Islamic credentials, and Anwar's attack against Umno last night will likely put BN on the defensive in the days to come.

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