KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Less than a year ago, Malaysians would have sniggered at any suggestion that former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, crushed by a sodomy charge in 1998, could make a political comeback.
Today, nobody laughs when Anwar claims he will become prime minister. He appears to be firmly on track to attract enough defectors from the ruling coalition ranks to secure a parliamentary majority and form Malaysia's first opposition-led government since independence in 1957.
Most analysts believe Anwar can pull it off, if not by his self-imposed deadline of Tuesday, then sometime next month.
It would mark another remarkable turnaround for a man once considered a star of Asian politics, only to be toppled 10 years ago and imprisoned on a conviction of having sex with a man, a crime in Malaysia. The conviction was overturned in 2004 but he now faces another sodomy charge. Anwar has strongly denied both cases, claiming they were intended to kill his political rise.
The ruling coalition has been weakened by dissent against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Anwar is capitalizing on that disarray. Abdullah lost much of his clout after presiding over the government's worst ever election results in March, plunging one of Southeast Asia's most stable countries into political turmoil.
Abdullah faced renewed public anger on Friday after his government arrested an opposition lawmaker, a journalist and an anti-government blogger under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial. Tan Hoon Cheng, a reporter for the Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew, was released Saturday after being questioned by police. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the arrests were necessary to prevent racial conflict, but Anwar said they were meant to "engineer an atmosphere of fear and instability."
Anwar needs 30 defections for his People's Alliance to form the next government.
"His chances have increased by 100 percent," said James Chin, a political science professor at the Monash University in Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur. "Getting 30 to me is not a problem. I don't doubt they will jump if the conditions and benefits are the right amount."
Still, there are serious doubts as to whether Anwar can hold together his three-party coalition of leftists, Islamists and liberal freethinkers, or fulfill his sweeping promises including dismantling a controversial affirmative action program that favors the ethnic Malay majority in jobs, education, housing, business and a host of other areas.
Many Malays see the program as their birthright. Most ethnic Chinese and Indians see it as state-engineered discrimination.
The Malay-dominated National Front has ruled Malaysia — often hailed as a moderate Islamic nation — continuously for more than 50 years. The coalition has maintained its legitimacy by claiming it alone can share out the nation's resources in a way that satisfies all ethnic groups.
That myth was shattered in the March 8 general election when Anwar stitched together his unlikely coalition on a platform of equality for all races. Together they won 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament, up from 19, as well as control of five of Malaysia's 13 states.
If 61-year-old Anwar forms the next government, it would amount to a political earthquake.
He says he will restructure the affirmative action program to focus on the needy, regardless of race; free the judiciary and the media from government interference; and guarantee religious freedom and civil liberties.
"It is not very difficult to be a better government, to control corruption, to be more just. That is quite easy. The more challenging task is to change the course of the economy," he said in a recent interview.
A major shift promised by Anwar would be a change in the way the government awards public contracts. At present the contracts can only go to Malay-owned companies, but even there the decisions are made arbitrarily.
This has been an obstacle to a free trade agreement with the U.S., which wants the contract process to be transparent and open to foreigners.
But Anwar has set his sights very high, and some foresee not reform but instability. The political outlook has rattled investor confidence, weakening Malaysia's currency and stock markets.
Still, his promises strike a chord not just with Chinese and Indians but with Malays who feel the benefits of affirmative action have gone only to a well-connected elite.
The system was devised soon after Malaysia suffered spasms of racial violence in 1969 and was intended to keep the peace by making all ethnic groups dependent on government patronage.
But analyst Chin said Anwar would temper any resentment among his fellow Malays by giving them dominance in government.
"There may be isolated protests but it won't turn into a full-scale uprising by Malays," he said. "Anwar knows the game well."