Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting until he was fired and arrested in 1998, said he will run for parliament after returning to the country next month.
The 59-year-old Anwar, who had been deputy premier and finance minister, said he plans to push for greater democracy and press freedom and an easing of affirmative action laws that he says have enriched "cronies" of the government, which must call an election no later than March 2009.
"I will enter the fray at the right time," Anwar said in an interview yesterday in Washington, where he is a visiting professor at Georgetown University. "I'm committed to the reform agenda."
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recruited Anwar for Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organization more than two decades ago and groomed him to take over until the Asian financial crisis. Anwar, who called for reform then, was dismissed by his boss and imprisoned for almost six years on corruption and sodomy charges.
Malaysia's Federal Court, the highest court of appeal, quashed the sodomy conviction in 2004, although it upheld the corruption charge, which means Anwar cannot run for public office until 2008.
Anwar may not have enough support in UMNO, as the largest party in the ruling coalition is known, to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, professor of politics at Universiti Utara Malaysia in the northern state of Kedah.
"He's still got some friends within UMNO, but not those who could help him make a comeback," Mustafa said. "It's better for Anwar to remain a political icon and maintain his international position than try for a comeback."
Anwar, who has called the corruption and sodomy charges a conspiracy to destroy his political career, said he would not rejoin UMNO, which has governed the country since independence from the U.K. in 1957. "The ruling party has lost its ideals in terms of ensuring distributive justice, combating corruption and fighting for freedom and democracy," he said.
Only a divided UMNO might offer Anwar the chance to ally with the party's senior leadership, said Mustafa at Universiti Utara Malaysia. This year has been marked by a political feud between Abdullah and Mahathir, who in October accused his successor of achieving nothing in his first three years in power.
Under the leadership of Abdullah since 2003, Malaysia's economy is trailing those of its neighbors, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, Anwar said, advocating a "new economic agenda." Corruption and preferential treatment for ethnic Malays are making the country uncompetitive, he added.
"On that agenda would be a specific way in which you would deal with the rise of China in India, even countries like Vietnam grabbing market share," he said in a separate interview with Bloomberg Television.
Anwar repeated a call for Malaysia to stop discriminating in favor of the country's ethnic Malay majority.
Ethnic Malays, or Bumiputras, which literally means "sons of the soil," get easier access to housing, education and government jobs under the 35-year-old New Economic Policy, aimed at protecting their interests relative to the country's Chinese and Indian minorities.
Affirmative action has increased wealth among Bumiputras, who account for 65 percent of the population, and eased tensions between them and the 25 percent of Malaysians who are ethnic Chinese and comprise the wealthiest segment of the population. Critics say the system discriminates against minorities and even hampers progress by creating a sense of entitlement that stifles initiative among ethnic Malays.
Malaysia's race quotas run the gamut of society, from governing university entrance to business ownership, and include a requirement that developers sell at least 30 percent of new units in their projects to ethnic Malays at a discount to the market price. Companies planning initial public offerings must sell 30 percent of stock to the grouping.
The program was introduced in 1971 after race riots between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Malays two years earlier following an electoral setback for UMNO. In neighboring Indonesia, anti- Chinese riots occurred during the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
Anwar offered no clear alternative to the policy, saying that Malaysia should take advantage of its English, Chinese and Indian language proficiencies to be more competitive.
As well as firing Anwar, Mahathir fixed the exchange rate of the ringgit, the country's currency, and imposed capital controls. The restrictions on the flow of capital were later eased and Abdullah, whom Mahathir nominated to succeed him in 2003, allowed the ringgit to trade more freely last year.
Asked if he aspires to lead the country, he said: "The decision of who is going to be prime minister is going to be the decision of the party," referring to the People's Justice Party, currently headed by his wife.