Image: Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim
Lai Seng Sin  /  AP
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, right, shakes hand with supporters after his nomination in Permatang Pauh, northern Malaysia, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008.
updated 8/17/2008 1:34:56 PM ET 2008-08-17T17:34:56

In headlines, on TV news and around dinner tables, the talk has turned lurid in Malaysia these days.

The country of 27 million people is transfixed by a drama whose second act unfolded in June when the top opposition leader, 61-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, was accused of having sex with a 23-year-old male aide. It sounded very much like a case from 10 years ago, when he was imprisoned on a similar charge involving his driver.

Anwar says both allegations were trumped up — the latest because he is running for parliament in a special election Aug. 26 that he believes will be his springboard to the premiership and the downfall of the long-ruling National Front of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

In the 1990s, as deputy prime minister, Anwar was hailed as a rising star of Asian politics. Advocating liberal, pluralist values in a country where race and Islam are paramount, he was a sharp contrast to his then boss, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was famous for his anti-Semitism-tinged attacks on the West.

Conviction overturned in 2004
Then, in 1998, the married father of six was charged with sodomy and abuse of power and sentenced to 15 years in jail. He was freed in 2004 after the conviction was overturned on a technicality.

Now comes the charge that on June 26 he had sex with the aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, in a Kuala Lumpur apartment.

Anwar denies this charge as strenuously as he did the 1998 one. "Give me a break. I've gone through hell already," he told reporters. "... I'm convinced ultimately I'll be vindicated."

The latest accusation is unlikely to hurt him, analysts say. They worry, though, about the aftermath.

If Anwar loses, his supporters will assume the elections were rigged and may take to the streets. Even if he wins, he could still be convicted of sodomy, which in Malaysia is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

"It will be a landmark by-election. It will be a deciding factor for Anwar," said political analyst Denison Jayasooriya.

Thousands of supporters
On Saturday, tens of thousands of cheering supporters escorted Anwar to the nomination center where he formally registered for the election in the northern state of Penang.

"I am touched by the overwhelming support. It is no longer just a by-election. It is a lot more than that," said Anwar.

Anwar faces a relative lightweight from the ruling party, and the People's Alliance he leads is already on a high. It made unprecedented gains in March elections against Badawi's National Front coalition, which has ruled the former British colony since it became independent in 1957.

The National Front retained a majority of 140 seats in the 222-seat parliament, but the People's Alliance soared from 19 seats to 82 and won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states.

Anwar promises clean government and free-market reforms. Although he belongs to the country's 60-percent Malay Muslim majority, he promises to end a policy that gives the Malays preference in politics, government jobs and university admissions.

"It is a historic moment for Malaysians, especially the silent majority, to convey how they want the nation to move ahead," analyst Jayasooriya said.

An opinion poll by the independent Merdeka Center this month found that 66 percent of respondents thought the latest accusation was politically motivated. Only 31 percent trusted the police to handle the case fairly.

Web sites, newspapers and even the government-controlled mainstream media have reported sordid minutiae of the case. Businessmen complain that it has become an embarrassment in their dealings with foreign customers.

Aide claims rape
On Friday, the aide spoke for the first time and claimed Anwar had raped him. The police had previously said the sex was consensual, but that Saiful was a key witness and would not be prosecuted.

"It happened by force, without my consent," he said at a news conference. "This was the first time I was sodomized." Government-controlled TV channels aired a video of Saiful in the mosque asking God to curse him if he is lying.

Sivarasa Rasiah, a lawyer for Anwar, retorted: "His story is a fabrication."

Media have published a report by a private doctor who examined the aide and found no evidence of sodomy. Police registered a case against Anwar after the aide underwent a second examination at a government hospital. The results of that examination have not been released.

The first doctor has since gone underground, leading to speculation that he may have been forced to leave the country.

The government is firm in portraying Saiful, the young aide, as the victim.

In an interview last month with The Associated Press, Prime Minister Abdullah denied any conspiracy.

The aide "needs justice," Abdullah said. "That is what he is crying for. We cannot ignore that."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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