The political future of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is in question after a High Court rejected his request to throw out sodomy charges and ordered him to stand trial.
The decision is a major personal blow to Anwar, 62, who last year announced plans to become the country's next prime minister either by engineering a defection of government backbenchers or in an election expected in 2011.
Analysts said a long trial and possible imprisonment would also be a serious setback for the three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, which Anwar put together and led to a huge victory in last year's polls.
Anwar faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of sodomy, a crime in this Muslim-majority country.
'The political future of Anwar and Pakatan is in question if he is found guilty and jailed,' said Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, a political science professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia. 'Anwar is Pakatan's unifying leader and without him Pakatan will suffer,' he said. 'They should start grooming a replacement leader now.'
Anwar pleaded not guilty in August last year to sodomising his former aide, Mohamed Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 24, and subsequently filed many petitions and appeals in various courts to have the charges quashed without a court hearing.
Anwar's lawyers argued that the charge should be thrown out because at least two medical reports, one from the government-owned Kuala Lumpur Hospital, had concluded that no sodomy had taken place.
His lawyers said the charge should be dismissed.
Although Anwar will appeal the decision, lawyers said the trial will start on January 25, giving the general public a window into the high-profile case, which has been shrouded in mystery since the allegations surfaced in June last year.
Anwar's team says the events surrounding the latest accusation are suspicious - the aide met Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was then the deputy prime minister, a few days before going to hospital to complain that he had been sodomised. He also allegedly met a senior police officer in a hotel room the day before going to the hospital.
Anwar was first charged with corruption and sodomy in 1998 and spent a total of six years in prison before he was acquitted and released in 2004.
He surprised everyone by making a political comeback at the head of the Pakatan coalition last year.
'I had expected this injustice,' Anwar said of the decision as he emerged from the courthouse yesterday.
'I am prepared for a long, tough battle ... we are confident of victory. We have compelling arguments and facts,' he said.
If found guilty, Anwar could be jailed for up to 20 years, effectively ending his political career, said Dr Denison Jayasooria, an academic at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
But he said Anwar and Pakatan also stand to gain a lot of political mileage out of the trial.
'People generally see Anwar as a victim of political persecution and, because of that, he will gain huge public sympathy ... guilty or otherwise,' Denison said.
The government would face a uphill battle convincing the public that the trial is not politically motivated, he said.
'Nevertheless, there is a major downside to the case and Pakatan must start cutting back on their reliance on Anwar as national leader. They should start searching for alternative leaders,' Denison said.
Mohamed Nizar, a popular moderate leader from the Islamic PAS, and former Umno minister Zaid Ibrahim are often cited as possible candidates to replace Anwar.
But both are political novices and, while popular, lack Anwar's experience and skills.
Sivamurugan said nobody could yet match Anwar for his charisma, experience, networking and political acumen.
'Pakatan is only a year-old, politically weak and hit by numerous internal squabbles,' Sivamurugan said.
'The loss of Anwar would indeed be debilitating, but I would not write off Anwar yet.'