Not long ago he was flirting with the idea of semiretirement, maybe a teaching job at an American university. But now Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition, former political prisoner and longtime bugbear of the establishment, says those plans are firmly on the shelf.
After a disputed election this month, in which he and his allies won a majority of votes but failed to capture control of Parliament, Mr. Anwar has returned to his roots as a political street fighter, drawing large crowds across the country to protest what he calls mass vote rigging.
“Rise up!” he beseeched a crowd of thousands crammed last week into a field in this seaside city. “We won the election, but we were robbed of victory.”
Street politics is a sort of political oxygen for Mr. Anwar, who turns 66 in August. His wife jokes that when he complains of aches or fatigue, the only way she can revive him is with a microphone and a crowd.
As a Malay radical in the 1970s, he led student protests for expanded Malay rights and was imprisoned for two years without trial. In the 1990s, he led tens of thousands of followers through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, embarrassing the government during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. He was later convicted of sodomy, a charge brought by his political enemies that was ultimately overturned. He spent six years in prison.
Now, as Mr. Anwar poses a new type of challenge to his government, many questions loom for him — and indeed for this relatively prosperous but unsettled country of about 30 million people. How long will he continue to protest the election results? And how long will the government, which has been slowly relaxing its mildly authoritarian powers, put up with the unrest?
At stake in the battle, besides the questioned validity of the election, is a fight over two visions for the future of this multiethnic country: the government view that continues to favor the Malays and those linked to the governing coalition with preferences versus Mr. Anwar’s campaign to curtail patronage and make government assistance operate on the basis of need, not ethnicity.
For Mr. Anwar, a Malay who once defended those preferences, the shift is a personal sea change, which some say is born of political ambition but that he says came to him during years of reflection in jail.
“My dream was to have a Malaysian spring that would be unique in the sense that we would do it through votes, not in the streets — a peaceful transition into a vibrant democracy in Malaysia,” Mr. Anwar said in an interview at his modest office in an obscure neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur. Now, with victory elusive, he said he wanted a peaceful resolution but hedged when asked how far he would take his protests.
Malaysian politics, so closely entwined with the country’s ethnic complexity, can be bewildering to outsiders.
Like Indonesia, Myanmar and many other countries in Asia, Malaysia is a product of European colonialism and still a work in progress. The mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indians (a much smaller group) is far from a melting pot — more a Babel of language, a hodgepodge of foods and a tense coexistence of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Malay Muslims have a slim majority of the population but have dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1957. Their wide-reaching set of preferential policies — cheap loans, scholarships and government contracts among them — were put in place in large part to help them rise in a society in which much of the wealth was held by the strongly entrepreneurial Chinese, who make up about a quarter of the population.
Under the social contract of decades past, ethnic groups shared power within the governing coalition led by the United Malays National Organization, or U.M.N.O. But that informal compact is now in tatters, with a majority of Chinese Malaysian voters defecting to the opposition over resentment of what many term “second-class citizenship.”
The falling out between the governing party and Chinese Malaysians seems mutual. “It’s the first time that a Malay government thinks it can govern virtually without any minority representation,” said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University and a leading researcher on Malaysian politics who said that many people “feel traumatized” by the election and the alleged irregularities.
The May 5 election was the closest that the opposition had come to defeating the governing party. Mr. Anwar and his allies won 51 percent of the vote, compared with 47 for the governing coalition. That was not enough for Mr. Anwar to win control of Parliament because the governing coalition is strong in rural areas, where it captured many more small districts, adding up to a comfortable majority of 133 seats, with 89 for the opposition.
There are glimmers of a multicultural Malaysian identity among Mr. Anwar’s supporters. At rallies where speaker after speaker proclaims interethnic brotherhood, Chinese Malaysian women in skimpy shorts stand next to Malay Muslim women fully covered in Islamic robes. Chinese Buddhists drape themselves in the green flag of the opposition’s Islamic party.
Mr. Anwar, his supporters say, is a sort of midwife in the slow birth of Malaysia’s multiethnic identity.
“Anwar sparked people’s thinking,” said Mohammed Razif, a 30-year-old Islamic teacher who attended the rally Tuesday. “Malaysia is a multicultural country, but only recently I realized that not every race is treated equally.”
Najib Razak, the prime minister who was returned to power after the elections, announced what he described as a “unity cabinet.” It includes several new faces, including the head of the local chapter of Transparency International, an anticorruption group.
“Together we will act to bring about national reconciliation,” he said.
Yet his new cabinet is most notable for the dominance of Malays — and the near absence of ethnic Chinese. Mr. Najib angered many in the opposition when he said that his coalition’s weak showing was the result of a “Chinese tsunami,” the withdrawal of support by Chinese Malaysian voters.
The opposition said the shift in support was by voters of all ethnicities and that singling out Chinese Malaysians served only to deepen divisions.
Such anger and frustration are palpable at opposition rallies, where protesters wear black because, as their T-shirts proclaim, they see May 5 as “the day that democracy died.”
At the rally in Kuantan, leaders of the opposition took turns addressing the crowd, but when Mr. Anwar’s arrival was announced, people rose to their feet and cheered. An ethnic Chinese woman, wearing a Malaysian flag draped over her shoulders, began jumping up and down.
“At the moment, he’s the only leader who can keep the opposition together,” Selva Raja, a courier-company employee who attended the rally, said.
Mr. Anwar paced the stage, telling the crowd that the election had been stolen and that the governing party was trying to divide the country.
“Look to your left; look to your right; look in front of you and behind you,” Mr. Anwar said. “You will see Chinese, Malays and Indians. This is the new Malaysia.”