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Malaysian Seeks End to Decades of Firm Rule
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — By the most obvious yardstick, this country of 25 million people is a democracy: Malaysia has held regular elections since independence from Britain five decades ago.

Yet during that time power has remained in the hands of one coalition, the media has remained slavishly pro-government, the courts have often hewed closely to the government line and critics of the country’s leadership have been detained without trial in periodic crackdowns.

Now Malaysia may be on the brink of a liberal, more democratic era.

The governing coalition is facing the very real possibility of losing its grip on power to the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who says he has enough votes to bring down the government and might do so as early as this week.

Mr. Anwar promises that if he become prime minister, he would not only scrap laws that muzzle criticism, but also upend the father-knows-best style of government and end a longstanding policy that favored the country’s majority Malays over other ethnic groups.

“I think we’re on an irreversible trend of democratization because it’s coming from the bottom up,” said Sivarasa Rasiah, a human rights lawyer and one of many opposition members elected to Parliament in March.

If Mr. Anwar succeeds in taking over the government, his actions could have implications far beyond Malaysia.

A onetime Islamist student radical, Mr. Anwar has emerged over the past decade as one of the leading proponents of the idea that Islam and liberal democracy are complementary. He has cultivated friendships with leaders who share his views in Turkey and Indonesia, and he has built bridges to the West.

He once served as a catalyst for the increasing religiosity among Malaysia’s Muslims. Today he walks the fine line between the secularism of the country’s Constitution and the demands by some Islamic forces, including those in his own coalition, for socially conservative policies.

Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who once mingled with the very establishment he is now challenging, was re-elected to Parliament in August.

As he and his allies in the opposition gained increased political backing over the past several months, the government under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has begun to strike back. In July, Mr. Anwar was charged with sodomy for the second time in his career in a case that a large majority of Malaysians surveyed in opinion polls say reeks of politics. And several newspapers have been warned about stepping out of line.

On Friday, a member of Parliament for the opposition, a newspaper reporter and a prominent antigovernment blogger were detained under the internal security act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Syed Hamid Albar, the home minister, told reporters on Saturday that the blogger and Parliament member had been detained for inciting ethnic tensions but that the reporter, who was released Saturday after 16 hours, was only questioned about her reporting on a recent controversy involving a member of the governing party.
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