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Anwar kicks off by-election campaign

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the government of resorting to dirty tactics to deter his campaign for a parliamentary by-election.

world Updated: Aug 17, 2008 13:34 IST

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the government on Sunday of resorting to dirty tactics to deter his campaign for a parliamentary by-election _ his first step in a bid to topple the government and become prime minister. Anwar embarked on a hectic campaign after formally registering on Saturday for the Aug. 26 vote in Permatang Pauh in the northern state of Penang.

Tens of thousands of cheering supporters escorted him to the nomination center, demonstrating Anwar's continuing popularity despite charges that he sodomized a 23-year-old male aide, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

"This election is important to the people of Permatang Pauh and to the nation at large. It has a bearing on national politics," Anwar said on Sunday.

Anwar, 61, was charged and jailed for sodomy in 1998 when he was deputy prime minister. He said both sodomy charges were the result of political conspiracies to prevent him from becoming prime minister.

Government officials are using the sodomy case to attack him and also paint him as being "anti-Malay" to hurt his campaign among ethnic Malays, who make up 69 percent of 58,459 voters in the constituency, Anwar said.

"These are dirty tactics and a malicious campaign on their part and completely immoral," he said. "We will work hard to maintain our level of support and improve it."

The government has denied any conspiracy against Anwar, whose People's Alliance coalition has emerged as a serious threat to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's National Front coalition. The by-election is a test for the National Front, which is seeking to stem its dwindling popularity after losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament in March general elections. The People's Alliance won an unprecedented 82 of Parliament's 222 seats. It also wrested control of 5 of Malaysia's 13 states. Senior government ministers, led by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, have gathered in Permatang Pauh to campaign for their candidate, Arif Shah Omar Shah. Police have deployed some 3,000 personnel in the area to ensure security in the run-up to the polls. "We are the underdog. It's going to be an uphill task but nothing is impossible," Najib said.

Analysts have predicted a comfortable win for Anwar, who held the Permatang Pauh seat from 1982 to 1999, when he was forced to vacate it after being ousted from the government and put on trial on charges of corruption and sodomizing his family driver. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, has held the seat since 1999. Anwar was convicted and imprisoned for 15 years, but he was freed in 2004 after Malaysia's top court quashed the sodomy conviction. However, the corruption conviction remained, which barred him from holding political office until April 2008.

"We don't believe in the sodomy charge. There is no evidence. It's the same old story to smear Anwar," said Khalil Abdul Rahman, a 47 year-old businessman in Penang.

Anwar has vowed to bring down the National Front government by Sept. 16 with parliamentary defections. He needs at least 30 defections to achieve that goal.

The ruling party, however, scoffed at Anwar's ambitions. "He's a master in psychological warfare. As far as we are concerned, Sept. 16 is a figment of his imagination," said Mukhriz Mahathir, a ruling party lawmaker.

Also contesting the election is an independent candidate.