KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim rejoined parliament on Thursday after a 10-year absence and immediately clashed with the government he aims to oust, leading an opposition walkout.
Anwar, once the protege of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was forced from office in 1998 on corruption and sodomy charges he says were part of a conspiracy to ruin his career.
“I feel vindicated. I feel great that I am back,” Anwar told reporters after he was sworn-in and appointed opposition leader, the day before the government unveils its 2009 budget that is widely expected to contain populist spending measures.
Ten years since he was last in parliament, Anwar is being backed by the biggest number of opposition MPs in Malaysia’s history in his quest to oust the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled the country for the past 50 years.
At the same time Anwar must fight new sodomy charges, which he says are politically motivated.
He clashed with the government over a bill that will require suspects in criminal cases to submit DNA samples — a measure he fears could be used against him after he refused to give DNA in the new sodomy case, arguing it could be tampered with.
Anwar led a walkout of opposition MPs and the bill was passed at the second reading by the government MPs, making its passage into law a formality.
“We staged a walkout, there is no point in staying in and participating. This is very disappointing, the government remains in a state of denial,” Anwar told reporters.
All homosexual sex is illegal in Malaysia, a mainly Muslim nation of 27 million people.
If the new sodomy prosecution is successful, Anwar could get 20 years in jail, effectively ending the 61-year-old’s political career. Even if he is not found guilty, months in court could overshadow his push for power.
Although Anwar is a respected former finance minister, his move on power after the opposition’s surprisingly strong showing in a March general election has rattled Malaysian financial markets due to fears of a period of prolonged uncertainty.
The main stock index has fallen more than 25 percent this year and the ringgit currency is close to year-lows.
Anwar wants to put Malaysia back on a fast-track to becoming a developed nation and says he will stamp out corruption and end an affirmative action programme for ethnic Malays he says has failed to help them and made the country uncompetitive.
Although Anwar was greeted with applause from the full opposition benches when he took his oath, wearing Malay dress and a songkok black hat, he faces a tough path to power.
In order to become prime minister, Anwar must win the backing of 30 legislators from the ruling coalition to get a majority in the 222-member parliament.
He has said he will call a confidence vote on September 16 — six days after he is due to appear in court on the new sodomy charges — but parliament is in recess for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Asked if he was still on track, Anwar simply said: “Yes”.
There is no provision for a confidence vote under the Malaysian constitution. If Anwar wins over enough MPs, he will send a letter to the king who will either appoint a new government or call new elections, said James Chin, Professor of Political Science at Monash University’s Malaysia Campus.
“The way you do it in Malaysia is you lock all of the MPs in a hotel and get them to sign a letter saying that they have lost confidence in the government,” he said.
Any defectors from the government would likely want top cabinet posts and that would add to tensions within Anwar’s fractious coalition of 82 MPs comprising reformers, Islamists and an ethnic Chinese party.
“Anwar is in a very, very difficult position as (Islamist party) PAS has said it would leave the coalition if it does not get the justice and the religious affairs ministry,” Chin said.
Reporting by Jalil Hamid; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Alex Richardson