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By Nancy-Amelia Collins
Jakarta
26 August 2008

Malaysians cast their ballots in a crucial by-election that looks likely to return opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to parliament, the first step in his bid to topple the government. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim casts his vote at Permatang Pauh, 26 Aug 2008
Anwar Ibrahim casts his vote at Permatang Pauh, 26 Aug 2008
Security was tight Tuesday, as Malaysians went to the polls to vote in a by-election that pits opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim against Arif Shah Omar Shah, from the ruling United Malays National Organization party.

Anwar leads a three-party coalition of Islamists and activists, while his opponent represents UMNO, the dominant party in a coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

After March general elections gave the opposition a third of parliament, Anwar pledged to topple the government by September 16.  If he wins the by-election, he still needs to convince 30 lawmakers to switch sides, to seize power.

Speaking before a crowd of his supporters, Anwar says exit polls show he is leading with around 60 percent of the vote.

"You see, the groundswell of support is there," he said. "This vote means that Malaysians want a change. We are entering parliament with a clear agenda. It's time that you behave and accept the stark realities of the day."

Anwar, the former deputy prime minister, has struggled to get back into the political arena after he was jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges which he says were politically motivated.

The supreme court overturned the sodomy charges, releasing Anwar from jail in 2004, but he was barred from entering politics until April, because the corruption charges stood.

Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, vacated her seat in June, paving the way for her husband to re-enter politics. But the government again charged Anwar with sodomy - this time with his 23-year-old male aide - a crime in Malaysia that is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Anwar, a 61-year-old father of five, vehemently denies the sodomy charges, saying they are politically motivated. A recent poll shows most Malaysians agree with him.

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng says an Anwar victory is a vote against the ruling Barisan National Party and the government of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

"I think it will definitely be an important milestone and also an important yardstick on Abdullah's administration's continuity and also popularity. But I think, most importantly, it will also be a voice of discontent which, should Barisan National lose this by-election. I think it will definitely be a yardstick of people's continuous rejection of the communal formula presented by Barisan National," said Khoo Kay Peng.

The results of the by-election are expected Tuesday evening.

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