On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Anwar is now at the crossroads

The glimmer of hope for Anwar and his family became
stronger in the last 48 hours before the verdict, prompting speculation of some
kind of a deal.

A family friend of Anwar narrated how Datin Seri Dr Wan
Azizah Wan Ismail sent word turning down a weekend dinner invitation because
she would likely be overseas with Anwar after his release.

Then, there was a senior DAP leader who predicted
confidently at a party gathering that Anwar would be released. There was no
second-guessing, not even a cautious qualification, but a bold prediction.

Still, on Wednesday night, as reporters called up Anwar's
lawyer Sankara N. Nair for confirmation on what they had heard over the
grapevine, the former policeman-turned-lawyer was guarded, saying he did not
want to harbour false hopes and he had heard of such talk too many times.

But, as the BBC reported, Nair proceeded to spell out in
detail the next day's schedule of press conferences, passport application and a
possible journey to Germany
for surgery. As the correspondent reported, he certainly did not sound like a
man who would accompany his client back to jail.

Mildly surprised – that was the reaction of Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad at a press conference at his Petronas
Towers office on Friday shortly
after Anwar was freed. That, perhaps, best summed up the sentiments of many in
the political and media circles.

Anwar, 57, is now at the crossroads. He has to decide
which direction to take. He has had plenty of time to reflect on the political
avenues before him.

Among the factors he would have considered are the
massive mandate for Abdullah, the humiliating defeat for PAS and the disastrous
outing for Parti Keadilan Nasional in the recent general election.

Some of the key issues of the reformasi movement – such
as fighting corruption and restoring credibility to key institutions – have
been given immediate attention by Abdullah.

Anwar had often complained about the lack of independence
of the judiciary. Ironically, before the Federal Court bench met to decide on
his appeal, Anwar applied to disqualify two judges, Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad
and Justice Tengku Baharudin Shah Tengku Mahmud, from hearing his case.

He felt that Abdul Hamid would be biased while Tengku
Baharudin lacked experience as he was only appointed early this year. In the
end, these two judges decided in his favour.

But the most important factor which would have the
biggest impact on Anwar's political future is the positive sentiment for
Abdullah. With the release of Anwar, the opposition has lost a big issue.

His conviction had, in some ways, clouded foreign opinion
of Malaysia but
with the new development, the perception of Malaysia
would certainly change in the eyes of many foreign leaders and investors.

The immediate indicator was the boost in the stock market
on Friday but let us not discount the buoyant economy. That aside, the world
has been positive towards the reforms being carried out by Abdullah and all
this has been reflected in the endorsement from major leaders.

Anwar can choose to lead a multi-racial opposition with
ties to PAS and DAP but given the Islamist party's conservative stance and
insistence on setting up an orthodox Islamic state, he would have a big
headache. The DAP has learnt its lesson, in the most bitter way, and would shy
away from such a commitment again.

Another option is to rejoin Umno. These are still early
days and the matter has not been brought up, according to sources in Putrajaya,
but nothing is impossible in politics.

After all, Dr Mahathir was once sacked from Umno. The
obstacle this time, however, is a new party ruling that bars members who had
left the party and had campaigned against Umno from rejoining.

Anwar has been a Keadilan adviser but has never held any
post. He can also argue that he never left the party because he was sacked.
Interestingly, his right-hand man, Azmin Ali, said there had been no serious
invitation from Umno while Dr Wan Azizah skirted the subject by saying that
Anwar was released not to join Umno.

Upon his release, Anwar said he must "take cognisance of
the fact that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi must have allowed
some latitude for the judges to act professionally and freely. But this is only
the beginning."

It would not be wrong to suggest that the Malay community
has long wanted the Anwar issue to end. With his acquittal, it has come to a
formal end.

National unity and reconciliation should be the priority
and, given Anwar's appeal and abilities, it would be a waste if these factors
were not taken into account.

No one expects Anwar to retire or go into exile. In all
likelihood, he will be a major political player but he may find himself shut
out for a long time. His corruption conviction, which he finished serving last
year, bars him from holding electoral office until 2008 (elections would likely
be called a year earlier).

Much water has passed under the bridge after six years.
The days of street demonstrations and angry politics are over. A new prime
minister, known for his open ways, non-antagonistic politics and moderate approach,
is at the helm. It is time to move on and, by now, Anwar must have decided
where he wants to go.