Page last updated at 14:47 GMT, Monday, 25 August 2008 15:47 UK

Battle of Malaysia's would-be leaders

A local election in Malaysia has turned into a vicious battle between two men who want to be the country's next leader, the BBC's Robin Brant reports from Penang.

Anwar Ibrahim, at a press conference on 25 August 2008
Mr Anwar accuses the ruling coalition of dirty tricks to derail his comeback

A by-election in the north of Malaysia does not strike you as a headline grabber.

The government is not on the brink of collapse. The economy - one of the strongest in the region - is robust. The people are not killing each other, as they have done in the past.

But millions are being spent, the day-to-day business of government is on hold. The battle for the constituency of Permatang Pauh has become a fight for the future of the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak told the BBC: "This is a titanic struggle". Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has used similar language.

"The Malaysians… consider this a critical point in our history," he said, "whether we get the mandate to chart a new course for Malaysia or we should just be happy with the same corrupt establishment."

Mr Najib and Mr Anwar both want to be the next prime minister of Malaysia.

Mr Anwar was once the heir apparent, but he was sacked from the cabinet in 1998, accused of sodomy, then jailed. The conviction was later quashed and, 10 years on, he is back - this time on the opposition side.

Mr Najib's father was prime minister and so was his uncle. He is from a dynasty that seems more royal than Malaysia's royal families.

Malaysia has been run by the same side for over 50 years. But earlier this year that looked as though it could be coming to an end.

Mr Anwar led a new coalition to an unprecedented showing in the general election in March. It did not win, but it came close. Ever since then he has claimed that a few dozen government parliamentarians are preparing to defect.

'Malicious campaign'

First things first, though; Mr Anwar needs to be elected to parliament. He was banned from standing until just after the general election. He is almost certain to win this by-election, which is to be held on Tuesday.

It would be a victory heavy in symbolism, cementing his revival. It would give him legitimacy as an elected politician once more and a crucial platform in parliament to attack the government.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, pictured on 3 July 2008
Mr Razak comes from one of Malaysia's political dynasties

That is why Mr Anwar must be stopped - if you see it from Mr Najib's point of view.

With Mr Najib in charge of the government campaign, religion has been a big issue.

A few weeks before he became a candidate, Mr Anwar was accused of sodomy for the second time in his career. It is illegal in Malaysia and punishable by 20 years in jail.

He has denied the claims, made by a man who used to work for him, calling it a set up; a carbon copy of the allegations made a decade ago.

Mr Najib admits that he met the 23-year-old accuser before the police got involved. Mr Anwar has claimed that the deputy prime minister orchestrated a smear campaign.

As the election campaign has neared its end the sodomy allegation has been used to question Mr Anwar's Islamic credentials. Malaysia is a mostly Muslim country and in this election in particular the core voters in the villages of Penang are Muslim.

Mr Anwar told the BBC: "What's shocking is that the deputy prime minister himself is directly involved in this malicious campaign."

Najib Razak denies that charge. "[Mr Anwar] has been very personal, I have not been personal," he said. "He's got that penchant for doing all these things."

'Clear conscience'

These two men share so much; a determination to be Malaysia's next prime minister, a determination to annihilate each other. Both are also facing career-ending allegations.

Mr Anwar has been accused of sodomy. A trial is likely next year.

Mr Najib, meanwhile, has been dragged into a murder trial. One of his closest advisors is standing trial for the killing of a young Mongolian woman.

The deputy prime minister was forced to go public last month to deny he had anything to do with it. It has damaged his reputation significantly. "I think I've done enough to clear my name," he said. "There may be some questions but… I think I have cleared my name."

It is rare for him to talk about the case in public. He told the BBC: "I've come out very clearly, very confidently, my conscience is clear."

Mr Anwar is almost certain to win the by-election in Permatang Pauh, but he must win big if he is to build on the momentum his opposition has massed since that general election surprise in the spring.

The ultimate goal is to bring down the government. Mr Najib is determined to stop him and he appears to be throwing everything possible at him to do it.

Print Sponsor

Malaysia's Anwar starts campaign
16 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar Ibrahim charged with sodomy
07 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar announces by-election plan
31 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Doctor 'ruled out Anwar sodomy'
29 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia's Anwar released on bail
17 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Top Malaysian murder trial opens
18 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Anwar Ibrahim
02 Feb 10 |  Asia-Pacific

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific