ENTERING last week's election as the wild card in Malaysian politics, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has emerged from the polls as the politician holding the strongest hand, making him a serious contender for the national leadership.
As government politicians and analysts struggle to make sense of the stunning election results, which denied the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) its two-thirds majority and gave the opposition control of five state assemblies, Datuk Seri Anwar is plotting his next moves.
'We need to get the state governments in place and quickly show the people that this is not business as usual,' said the 60-year-old politician, who was sacked from government in 1998 and then jailed on corruption charges.
'We have to show that we can manage with prudence and make procurement policies transparent through tenders,' he noted, adding that the opposition will demand the same in Parliament of the BN.
The stakes are high for him and the ideologically diverse opposition coalition built around his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
For the first time in Malaysia's history, the opposition - which has little experience in governing - will be in charge of five states, several with established industrial bases and robust economies.
Should it succeed it crafting investment policies that will create jobs and bring an end to the patronage form of government that has characterised past BN administrations, analysts say the opposition alliance could make a credible bid for national power in future polls.
But it won't be easy, they say.
Apart from PKR, a Malay-dominated multiracial party, the alliance includes the predominantly Chinese and left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP). At the other end of the spectrum is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which only recently dropped its demand to turn Malaysia into a theocratic state should its come to power.
Datuk Seri Anwar played a crucial role in getting the two traditional political foes to set aside their differences to create an unlikely three-way alliance for the election.
He acknowledges that forging a middle ground comfortable enough for PAS and the DAP to co-exist will continue to be a challenge.
'Three months ago, I knew that we could easily secure at least one-third of the parliamentary seats. My partners weren't convinced, but I told them as long as we remain a cohesive force we can deny the BN the two-thirds and get more,' he said.
There is no denying that the Anwar-led opposition can claim credit for shifting the axis of power that has long shaped Malaysia.
The huge electoral setbacks suffered by Umno means that it cannot establish a government on its own.
Umno, which has long been used to dictating how the government is run, is now weakened, a prospect many analysts fear could stymie decision-making in government.
Datuk Seri Anwar's return to mainstream politics is the latest twist in a political odyssey of one of Malaysia's most popular and powerful politicians.
In the 1970s, he set up a foundation to tutor poor Malay dropouts and led a 40,000 strong Muslim youth movement called Abim, which championed Islamic, social and human-rights causes.
The often caustic attacks against the government led him to jail in 1974 for a period of 22 months after he organised demonstrations against national agricultural policies which hurt farmers.
With his growing national stature, Datuk Seri Anwar was being actively courted by PAS. But it was former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who in 1981 persuaded the young Anwar to join the ruling party.
Datuk Seri Anwar rose quickly through the ranks and in 1991 was appointed to the powerful post of finance minister, and two years later became Umno's deputy president, a position which made him a clear successor to Dr Mahathir.
But the partnership came unstuck with the onset of the Asian financial crisis, which resulted in Datuk Seri Anwar's sacking from government and his subsequent imprisonment.
Looking a little rested from a punishing two-week campaign, Datuk Seri Anwar said the internal bickering in Umno, which helped the opposition's election campaign, will also give his coalition time to put its own house in order in the states where it will govern.
His aide Khalid Jaffar said his boss is likely to contest a by-election once the prohibition barring him from holding office expires next month.
'The big task is to push ahead with this multiracial deal that we are offering Malaysians,' Mr Khalid said.
Now for the hard part
PACING the long corridors of his double-storey home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim fields telephone calls from his opposition colleagues, trying to hammer out compromises for new state government positions.
'You think winning the elections is difficult. It is also difficult after winning,' he tells The Straits Times in a wide-ranging interview.
He says the opposition coalition he heads is still coming to grips with huge advances in the weekend elections. He also ruled out any unity government with the BN. Here are excerpts: [Full Story HERE]