PORT DICKSON: He may have been the most famous face to descend on the lethargic Lukut suburb in recent memory, but even as Anwar Ibrahim roared into the rally microphone, the crowd of about 400 people remained detached, their polite clapping hardly rising above the frogs croaking in the cool night air.
Then, a joke from the Malaysian prime minister-in-waiting: “I watch kampong people carry bags and I think of Rosmah. Now, I’m afraid I will remember her every time I see someone carrying a bag!”
Finally the audience erupted, delighting at the expense of the notoriously extravagant wife of their former leader Najib Razak. The couple have been the focus of nationwide outrage, as they face charges of money laundering and more in the wake of Malaysia’s shock general election result in May.
Anwar himself is no stranger to the public gaze and precipitous falls from grace. He was deputy prime minister and a rising star in the former ruling Barisan Nasional coalition until convicted of sodomy - first in 1998, then in 2015. Both, Anwar has said, were attempts to derail his political career.
While in jail he later joined forces with old foe and current prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and was freed after their alliance won the polls this year. Mahathir has since promised to hand the reins over to his former protégé in about two years.
To lead Malaysia, Anwar first needs a federal seat - enter the west coast town of Port Dickson, where a by-election has been called for Oct 13 following the resignation of its incumbent parliamentarian.
From nomination day on Sep 29, it has become clear that this will be no stroll to the throne. Six other candidates are challenging Anwar, including a former aide who levelled his second sodomy accusation.
In the weeks since, Anwar has dealt with fake news - again, on sodomy - spread by an UMNO leader. He has had temple visits painted as anti-Islamic by the opposition. He has clashed with the Election Commission and Bersih watchdogs over campaigning restrictions and claims of preferential treatment.
He has been reported to the police by independent candidate Stevie Chan, who alleged that he had violated election rules. And he continues to face complaints of ineligibility and unethical behaviour, stemming from both voters and experts in various fields.
AN EARLY LITMUS TEST?
However political analysts interviewed by Channel NewsAsia unanimously praised Anwar for deftly managing his public image throughout, to emerge none the worse for wear as polling day draws near.
“He has managed to answer or parry the various charges levelled at him,” said Dr Francis Hutchinson of Singapore’s ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. “These charges are widely perceived to have been politically motivated, which also allows him to parry allegations raised by the candidature of Saiful Bukhari.”
Said Dr Tunku Mohar Tunku Mohd Mokhtar of the International Islamic University Malaysia: “He has been very careful to curate an image that is loyal to Mahathir, but independent enough to lead Malaysia and institutionalise further reforms in the country.”
Dr Azmi Hassan also commended Anwar for demonstrating a patience gleaned from past experience. “His public image as PM-in-waiting was on shaky ground amidst perception that certain quarters did not want to see him as PM, and wild talk that Mahathir was formulating a strategy to prevent him from becoming PM,” said the University of Technology professor.
These were put to paid when Mahathir shared a rally stage with Anwar in Port Dickson earlier this week, he added. “Anwar took the rumours in stride, and did not add oil to the fire.”
However, independent candidate Chan was unconvinced. “Just following his public appearances from his first ceramah (rally), you notice the change in tone and message. The swagger of day one is replaced with a plea for support,” he claimed.
One challenge for Anwar in Port Dickson would be to connect with younger voters, said Dr Hutchinson. “Many of them were very young in 1998 and have little memory of his personal story,” he noted.
Anwar also has to assure voters - and the rest of Malaysia - that he fits into, and will not be against, Mahathir’s team and the government of the day, said Dr Sivamurugan Pandian from the University of Science.
“His words and actions are gauged as that of the next prime minister,” added Dr Tunku.
Therein lies what Dr Hutchinson described as another tall order which Anwar must already begin to tackle.
“He’ll need to develop a political message that’s different from Mahathir,” said Dr Hutchinson. “This could be quite difficult, given Mahathir’s tenure, track record, and stature.”
But should Anwar’s ascent to the premiership be fulfilled, he would have a considerably easier task dealing with other world leaders - given his pre-existing standing and relationships with them, said the observers.
“Anwar has been very good at cultivating international opinion,” said Dr Hutchinson. “His urbanity, eloquence, and image of moderate Islam plays well overseas, and will be brought to bear in the coming months as his profile rises.”
“Globally, I think he has the necessary gravitas and charisma to charm the world,” Chan conceded. “I’ve no doubt he’ll be a popular leader worldwide. But the key thing is - in Malaysia, what’s his vision for the future? For our society?”