Waft of scandal is choking the once bright light of Anwar Ibrahim

In 2008, Anwar Ibrahim harboured hopes of sweeping to victory in Malaysia's parliamentary elections, but a lurid and long-running court case has since left him both distracted and diminished.

Former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim (L) addreess the press as he leaves the Turkish embassador house in Kuala Lumpur on 30 June, 2008.  Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who took refuge at the Turkish embassy amid threats and sodomy accusations, left after the Malaysian government guaranteed his safety.    AFP PHOTO  MALAYSIA OUT *** Local Caption ***  799959-01-08.jpg
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As he reflects on a month during which he has not only been on trial for sodomy but also accused of being the mystery man in a sex tape featuring a Chinese prostitute, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim may be forgiven for wondering how his dream of finally taking power has crumbled so swiftly.

It seemed so close in 2008. That summer, Newsweek's one-time "Asian of the Year" emerged from a long period of humiliation and incarceration that had begun in 1998 when, after falling out with the country's long-term leader, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar had been stripped of office on what were widely regarded as trumped up charges of corruption and sodomy. The news made global headlines: the great leader of the "reformasi" movement was not only down but jailed too.

Ten years later he was back. His opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, dealt the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance the worst blow in its history, a "political tsunami" that gave the opposition control of five of the country's 13 states. The result was seen as Anwar's triumph, and when he won a by-election in August and returned to parliament as official leader of the opposition it truly appeared that he was "on the road to Putrajaya", the administrative capital. He vowed to topple the government by winning over 30 MPs, enough to give the coalition a majority, by September 16 that year.

Today Anwar cuts a diminished figure. The opposition did not take power and has suffered a series of by-election defeats. Stung by accusations of cronyism and defections from his own party, PKR, Anwar presides over a coalition whose momentum has stalled. The current trial, which has been going on for over a year, has left him distracted and unfocused and the opposition effectively leaderless. Are the glories all in the past for one of South East Asia's best known politicians?

One reason why the victorious air of August 2008 is now but a memory is because while that year's general election was a vote for change, it was also a negative vote, a rejection of the corruption, favouritism and mismanagement associated with the administration of the BN's then leader, Tun Abdullah Badawi, rather than a positive endorsement of the opposition coalition's policies.

If Malaysia had a presidential system, Anwar may well have won. But in a parliamentary democracy a leader must be collegiate, he must keep his party with him. And this, say the numerous senior members of PKR who have left, he has failed to do. Recent party elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging, and with Anwar its leader, his wife its president, and his daughter a vice president, PKR is beginning to look like a vehicle for his circle. One MP and PKR founder member who left in January, N Gobalakrishnan, put the criticism in particularly devastating form. "Anwar may be God-given," he said, "but he thinks he is God."

PKR has now lost one-fifth of its 31 parliamentary seats to defections and resignations, a subtraction that matters because it is the glue that holds two very uneasy allies together - PAS, an Islamist Malay party, and the DAP, which is secular, left-leaning and overwhelmingly Chinese. PKR needs to be strong to maintain its claim to the premiership should the opposition ever win a federal election, as neither a PAS nor a DAP prime minister would be acceptable to the other. At the moment, however, Anwar's party appears to be the weakest link. This impression was only reinforced by last Saturday's election in the key state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Considered a "fixed deposit" for the BN, both sides were looking for a result that would boost their hopes in the next national contest. True, the BN won fewer seats in the state assembly, but it still retained its two-thirds majority. And the opposition gains were mainly made by the DAP, which won 12 of the 15 constituencies it fought for in the 71-seat chamber. PKR, on the other hand, stood in 49 constituencies and only managed to gain a paltry three.

Meanwhile, the BN has not been idle. Badawi was ditched within a year of the election, and his successor, Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, has projected a far more dynamic and effective image. Although his approval rating stood at 45 per cent when he took office in 2009, it has since risen to around 70 per cent in polls conducted by the independent Merdeka Centre over the last year.

Against this backdrop, Anwar's second sodomy trial drags on and on. When it started, his influential friends in the US - principally former vice president Al Gore and World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz - jumped to his defence. The two joined forces to declare in The Wall Street Journal that the Malaysian state itself was "on trial".

The assumption then was that the case would be swiftly settled. Instead, there has been an endless series of postponements and procedural arguments. It has been hard to sustain international outrage when no one knows when a verdict may eventually be handed down. Anwar still has his liberty, after all; and he did not help his cause abroad when, in a shameless piece of pandering to the Muslim chauvinist vote, he claimed that prime minister Najib's 1Malaysia policy was thought up by a "Jewish-controlled" public relations firm, Apco. He is currently suspended from parliament for making the allegation.

Worse, even if the charge is politically motivated (Najib denies interfering in the case, which involves a 25-year-old former aide to the opposition leader), far from everyone is convinced that it is fabricated. "I believe he is guilty as hell," said Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a former senior PKR leader and law minister. "Anwar is compulsive. There will always be charges against him." The sentiment is surprisingly common in the liberal, urban circles one might have thought to be axiomatically pro-Anwar.

Ziauddin Sardar, a renowned UK-based scholar and critic who was an adviser to Anwar in the late 1990s, is adamant that the allegations are nonsense. "I have known Anwar for over 30 years," he says. "He cannot be bought, bribed or forced to deviate from the path of honesty. That's why the establishment in Umno [the Malay party that dominates the governing BN] had to attack his character." Sardar says he predicted that sodomy would be the line of attack two years before Anwar was first charged in 1998. "They had to find something unthinkable. I came to the conclusion that it was sodomy, as the Malays, especially the religious ones and those from the villages, find it abhorrent and unnatural. And it is an allegation that always leaves the seeds of doubt. I told Anwar my fears, but he thought Umno politicians would never sink that low. They did. Given what is happening now, they are hell bent on proceeding to even lower depths."

Those "seeds of doubt" swiftly took root. As one prominent blogger who is an old family friend of Anwar put it to me when the charge first surfaced: "A lot of people are saying, 'No smoke without fire'."

Innocent or guilty, the truth is that Anwar was never quite the liberal, pluralist champion his cheerleaders in the West imagine. His background was in an Islamist youth movement - Mahathir brought him into his administration in 1982 precisely to burnish its religious credentials - and in government he was seen by many as a Malay extremist.

If that is not the image put forward since 1998, that is because while Anwar may well be charismatic, determined and brave, he has still always been a politician. Before being struck down in a manner that made him into a hero, he had gambled - and lost. Were it not for that massive miscalculation, he could well be prime minister now; but as leader of the BN, as his nemesis, Dr Mahathir, conceded in his recently published memoirs, A Doctor in the House: "Anwar should have been the prime minister of Malaysia today," he wrote. "If he is not, it is because of his own actions."

For now, Anwar's trial continues. The prosecution completed their case on March 24. Proceedings were due to resume earlier this week, but in a by now familiar pattern, they were delayed yet again. Defence submissions will now begin on Monday.

An acquittal would be devastating for the BN, but if ultimately Anwar is jailed, any ensuing international condemnation will be ridden out and the opposition thrown into a chaos easily exploited by the BN-supporting press. A never-ending court case, on the other hand, wearies both the public and, more importantly, the defendant and the coalition he leads. This is the course most observers expect.

As he is now 63, Anwar may have to content himself with the "victory" the opposition won in the last election. "I don't think he's finished," comments Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, an old friend of Anwar and a former minister, "but it does look like it's the beginning of the end."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South-east Asian politics and religion.