Anwar's wife Wan Azizah wins Permatang Pauh seat vacated by the jailed opposition leader

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - The wife of jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim won her husband’s parliamentary seat Thursday by a wide margin in a by-election seen as a test of support for the three-party alliance he headed, local media reported.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, an Irish-trained medical doctor and mother of six, took the Permatang Pauh seat in the northern state of Penang that was vacated after her husband was jailed in February.

She collected 30,316 votes while nearest rival and BN candidate Suhaimi Sabudin got 21,475 votes, The Star reported, citing the final tally announced by the Election Commission.

Two other candidates - Parti Rakyat Malaysia's Azman Shah Othman, 50, and independent candidate Salleh Isahak, 53, gained just 101 votes and 367 votes respectively. There were 843 spoilt votes.

Turnout was recorded at 73.71 percent or 52,983 voters.

Anwar was imprisoned for five years on charges that he sodomised a former male aide, a case he says was fabricated by the government. Thursday’s result marks the second time that Wan Azizah, 62, has stepped in for her husband during his controversial imprisonments.

She won the same seat in 1999, replacing Anwar after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in Malaysia’s long-ruling government and jailed on previous sodomy and corruption charges widely considered politically motivated.

That imprisonment left Wan Azizah at the head of the reform movement that emerged in response to Anwar’s ouster, and she twice defended the seat.  But she vacated it in 2008 to allow the charismatic Anwar to return to parliament after his release.

Taking over leadership of the opposition, he helped inspire a once-fragmented opposition to unprecedented gains in parliament, nearly taking power in 2013 polls from the ruling coalition that has dominated Malaysia for decades.

The widely respected Wan Azizah, a petite woman who wears the traditional Muslim headscarf, appears unlikely to replace her husband as opposition leader, however. That baton is expected to pass to Anwar’s longtime protégé Azmin Ali.

There had been some concern over Wan Azizah’s ability to retain the seat for her Parti Keadilan Rakyat or People’s Justice Party. The three-party opposition alliance is mired in uncertainty amid internal policy squabbling, a situation worsened now without Anwar’s dominant presence.

In particular, the conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), part of the opposition alliance, has angered many moderates by calling for harsh sharia law in a state it governs, despite an earlier pledge not to. The sharia campaign looks unlikely to succeed.

The sodomy conviction for Anwar, now 67, threatens to end his political career. He calls the case a conspiracy by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government to derail the opposition’s momentum.

Najib has been condemned at home and abroad over the Anwar case and for the arrests of scores of opposition politicians and other critics over the past year on sedition and other charges.