Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will find out Monday whether he will spend up to 20 years behind bars when a verdict is handed down in his sodomy trial, a case that has gripped and reviled Malaysians in equal measure.
The decision is also likely to form the backdrop for an early election after more than a year of political manoeuvring by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Insiders say an election could be called for February, although the next poll isn't due till 2013.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has given the police the all clear to act as they see fit with Anwar’s supporters, claiming they can rally up to 100,000 people outside the court for a decision they say is all but forgone. The boast prompted complaints from businesses and a warning by police that they won't allow any protests.
It’s a warning that will be taken seriously given the violence at last July’s pro-electoral reform rally, when people attempting to march to a local stadium were tear gassed, baton charged and arrested.
Anwar was again charged with sodomy, an illegal offense in Malaysia, shortly after his PKR handed then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and UMNO their worst ever drubbing at the 2008 election, which cost the party its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
It resulted in Badawi being ousted in a party coup to make way for Najib, who has since undertaken a raft of economic and political reforms designed to win back voter confidence. However, if he fails to win back the two-thirds majority he could face a leadership challenge from his own deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin.
Anwar insists his PKR three-party alliances can beat the UMNO dominated Barisan Nasional coalition at the next election even if he goes to jail. Much of his responsibilities within PKR will probably fall on the shoulders of his daughter Nurul Izzah, who was effectively opposition leader when her father was unable to stand in 2008 because of his conviction for abuse of power.
Under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, Anwar was touted as a future leader. But they fell out primarily over when and if he would take over the top job and on differences over the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis and how to deal with it.
He was sacked, tried on charges of sodomizing his wife’s driver and for corruption. He was bashed and hospitalized while in police custody, found guilty on both counts and jailed. Massive demonstrations followed and the sodomy conviction was eventually overturned, after six years behind bars.
The latest charge came after Anwar's 26-year-old aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, claimed Anwar had forced him to have sex. DNA samples from semen found on Saiful's body provided a match, but there were also claims that forensic evidence was handled incorrectly.
The charges have been widely condemned around the world amid claims they were politically motivated. But at home, many Malaysians are simply fed up with politicking by all sides and the obscene nature of the alleged crimes, which have been splashed across the front pages of government sympathizing newspapers. How that translates at the ballot box, possibly next month, will be Najib’s big test.