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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 10:27 GMT
Wan Azizah: Malaysia's opposition torch-bearer
Wan Azizah alongside her husband after his sacking

More by marriage than by design Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has been thrust to the forefront of Malaysia's political battleground.

When Anwar was arrested, I realised I had to do something
Wan Azizah
With her husband, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, arrested and subsequently sentenced to six years in jail, the softly-spoken housewife and former eye surgeon found herself the torch-bearer for Malaysia's burgeoning "reformasi" movement.

''When Anwar was arrested, I realised I had to do something,'' she told an interviewer earlier this year. ''If not, he would just fade away.''

Wan Azizah, however, is no born politician. She appears uncomfortable in the media spotlight and frequently loses her way whilst making speeches.

Wan Azizah Wan Azizah has galvanised Malaysia's opposition
Before her husband's spectacular fall from grace she had been leading a relatively tranquil life, hosting charity functions and entertaining the various foreign dignitaries that came to knock on Mr Anwar's door.

Nonetheless for many Malays, outraged at the treatment her husband received at the hands of the police, the courts and his former colleagues, she became the natural focus for opposition to 18-years of Mahathir government.

"She wants justice and that's why we support her," said a supporter at a recent rally.

'Azizah will take over'

Wan Azizah first came to prominence standing at her husband's side as he addressed a series of pro-reform rallies in the days after his sacking.

Anwar protest A tide of protest swept Malaysia after Mr Anwar's conviction
At one of his last public appearances before his arrest, she heard him tell a huge crowd: "If anything happens to me, then Azizah will take over."

It was an announcement she says surprised her at the time. But, after the tide of protest that swept Malaysia following her husband's arrest and again following his conviction, she felt she could not let his supporters down.

As a result her six children, who range in age from six to 19, have had to take a back seat in her considerations - a fact that she often notes with regret.

Nonetheless without any political experience, she has managed to unite Malaysia's usually disparate opposition into a fragile alliance aimed at bringing an end to the 18-year domination of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

People power

The causes that we espouse go beyond geographical boundaries and ... are not very different from the struggle of the Filipino people more than 12 years ago
Wan Azizah
(Manila, April 1999)
At the heart of the alliance is the National Justice Party, known popularly a Keadilan, which she co-founded earlier this year.

With Anwar himself behind bars Wan Azizah has effectively become field commander for Mr Anwar's campaign to bring down his former boss.

It is a struggle she has compared to the "people power" revolution in the Philippines that eventually toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and brought Corazon Aquino to the presidency.

Wan Azizah meets former Filippino President, Corazon Aquino Wan Azizah meets former Filippino President, Corazon Aquino
In April, shortly after her husband's conviction for corruption, she travelled to the Philippines for talks with Mrs Aquino.

In the months since, her party meetings and campaign rallies have been dominated by pictures of Mr Anwar with his now infamous black eye - the result of a police beating on the night of his arrest.

Some observers say this focus on a single issue - even one single man - could ultimately prove crippling as the impact of her husband's case already shows signs of losing steam.

After all, until relatively recently - and as long the economy was doing relatively well - Malaysia was a country almost renowned for its political apathy.

But Wan Azizah insists Keadlian is more than just a single issue 'save Anwar' party - it is, she says, about restoring justice and fairness to Malaysian society.

Golden boy

Before her husband's downfall Wan Azizah admits that she rarely questioned the legitimacy of Dr Mahathir's government. At the time Mr Anwar was widely seen as the golden boy of Malaysian politics and was being groomed as Dr Mahathir's chosen successor.

Wan Azizah says her party has struck a chord with Malaysian voters
It took Asia's economic crisis to show the cracks.

The system worked up to a point, she says, but then flaws began to appear exposing the cronyism and abuse of power that she says underlies the prime minister's power.

After years in power she says her husband's former boss and mentor has "lost all sense of perspective, all sense of right and wrong, and all sense of reality".

Now, after winning Mr Anwar's former parliamentary seat, Wan Azizah is set to take her campaign into the heart of Malaysia's political arena.

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See also:
30 Apr 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir's 'iron fist rule'
04 Apr 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar's wife launches new party
11 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Party guide: Malaysia's opposition alliance

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