IT had been raining cats and dogs since dusk and, for a while, it seemed like the first leg of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's roadshow would be washed out.
But the rain tapered off after 9pm and then it was showtime. It was only natural that Anwar picked Permatang Pauh to begin his ceramah series as he approaches judgment day for the sodomy trial.
This once sleepy enclave in Seberang Prai was where it all began for him and the people of Permatang Pauh have stood by him through all his ups and downs.
But the last few months have not been an up period for Anwar. His reputation is at its lowest ebb in years, ruined by the Kajang Move fiasco. A strategy his advisers thought would propel him forward had instead sent him crashing down.
This prime minister aspirant had once walked on water but his aura has been dented and the signs were all there that night - a rather passive atmosphere and a crowd of barely 1,500 despite the presence of some big guns.
It was a muted start to his "Rakyat Hakim Negara" campaign, a clarion call to the people to be the judge in this final stage of his sodomy trial. It is his way of subjecting the trial to the court of public opinion rather than the court of law.
Blame it on the rain but it is undeniable that there has been some sort of shift in voter sentiment about politics and issues.
Anwar is a political virtuoso and he can smell it in the air. But the thing about Anwar is his ability to control his emotions. He is still an incomparable orator, the soaring rhetoric is still there, and he came down from the stage and spoke standing on the steps so as to bridge the gap with his audience.
Even his attempt to remind them of the black eye incident was presented as a joke: "I don't want to be shocked again... suddenly ba-da-boom... a black eye."
It was only towards the final part that he assumed a more serious note, saying that he is mentally prepared for the worst on Oct 28 and 29, when the Federal Court will hear and decide on his final appeal against the sodomy charges.
One year ago, at the height of his popularity, he would have urged the crowd to come out to protest and they would have done so. But he can sense the change and, this time, he asked for their prayers.
A news portal described the Permatang Pauh ceramah as Anwar's "farewell speech".
There is a sense of doom and gloom about the coming week. Many in PKR are thinking the worst case scenario - they think Anwar will be found guilty rather than innocent. They have always maintained that this is a political trial aimed at stopping the party and to deprive Pakatan Rakyat of a prime minister candidate.
The stakes, said a Penang lawyer, are very high this time. If Anwar is found guilty, his political life will end there and then.
"There is no one with his skills to hold the three political animals (PKR, DAP and PAS) in one cage. Whether you like him or not, there is only one Anwar. No one can replace him," said the lawyer.
If Anwar is not there, PAS and DAP will separate like oil and water.
PKR leaders are working to organise a protest rally at the Palace of Justice where the federal judges will preside.
The new Youth chief, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, is under pressure to pull off a big rally but he is said to be struggling because the party is quite badly divided after the PKR election earlier this year. For instance, when Nik Nazmi called a press conference to announce the arrangements for the rally, only two Youth leaders turned up alongside him.
The internal split was further aggravated when 90 per cent of the appointed party posts were given to those aligned to Kajang Move architect Rafizi Ramli.
The onus is now on Nik Nazmi and Rafizi, who is the new secretary-general, to get a mammoth crowd to show everyone that Anwar is still loved and needed. This is their first major assignment and all eyes are going to be on whether they can bring the party out on the big day.
Lack of support
But supporters of former Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim will not be turning out in big numbers. They are still bitter about the way their man was pushed off the stage.
Neither will all of Azmin Ali's supporters come out in full force. They are still fed-up at the way the group around Istana Segambut, the term for the powerful Anwar family, tried to undermine Azmin during the party polls and how they had tried to block his ascent to the Selangor Mentri Besar post.
But Khalid's former special officer Khairul Anuar Ahmad Zainudin will be there.
"People are still nursing their wounds. It is not easy to forget the election - flying chairs, people punching each other. It has affected the mood. But I'm going because Anwar is still the best person to fight Barisan Nasional," said Khairul who is also the PJU division chief.
A former Youth branch chief who was less enthusiastic said: "I will go if I wake up early."
It is little wonder that Anwar had wanted his wife to be Selangor Mentri Besar. If that had happened, the Selangor administration would likely have been involved in one way or another in focusing on the Anwar cause.
Azmin has indicated that he will be there to show his support. The new Mentri Besar said he had never missed important court dates for Anwar and he does not intend to make an exception now.
But a lot of the passion, the fire and even the anger have been replaced by political fatigue.
The centre of gravity in PKR has started to shift to Azmin. Many in the party can see that he has what it takes for the complex job of Mentri Besar.
The transition from Khalid to Azmin has been smoother than many had dared hope for. Azmin has shown leadership and ability, and that has helped the coalition pull back from the brink of the political crisis.
Many people, especially the intelligentsia, feel let down by Anwar. The Kajang Move was a tipping point for the thinking class.
They had put so much hope on him but he fluffed it. First, he made a sitting assemblyman resign so that he could contest a by-election. Then he put his wife as the candidate. Next, he pushed down a sitting Mentri Besar and tried to put his wife as the next Mentri Besar.
"People have been able to relook and rethink their views about the party and the man. They had to take a hard look at whether they have looked up to the wrong man to be the next PM," said the above lawyer.
But there is still a lot of sympathy for him and his family.
"It is not that people wish him ill but I don't see them pouring into the streets again," said Rita Sim of the CENSE think-tank.
The big numbers at Pakatan rallies have often come from PAS supporters and that has thinned off.
The Arab Spring inspired many Muslims but the outcome has left a bad taste in their mouth. The Egypt protests brought down an unpopular dictator but it resulted in unrest and instability and the void has been filled by another strongman. Likewise, the Hong Kong protests have drawn mixed reaction from Chinese Malaysians.
The reality is that the average Malaysian is currently more concerned about rice-bowl issues than politics.
A great deal of Anwar's clout back when he was hit with the second sodomy charges was the way the leading ulama in PAS rallied to his cause. They defended him at ceramah, at Friday lectures and in their conversations with friends and family.
The ulama support carried tremendous moral weight for the average Malay. But the ulama from PAS seem to have disappeared. They are more concerned about implementing hudud in Kelantan and commenting on issues like petting dogs and beer guzzling.
Life, as they like to say, has its cycles. At the start of the sodomy issue in 2008, the most vilified man was Anwar's accuser, the sweet-faced Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Today, six years later, Saiful has grown up. He got married last year and in July, he became the father of a cute baby boy.
He is now a handsome 30-year-old, the dimpled smile is still there and he looks like a natural father from the way he holds and carries his infant son. There is also the romantic in him going by his Facebook posting of him and his wife, Sue Megat Deraman, holding hands over a candlelight dinner on their wedding anniversary.
Saiful has kept a low profile through the years. He looks contented and happy although he is probably as nervous and anxious about the impending court verdict as the man he accused of sodomising him.
Saiful's life today is poles apart from that of his former boss Anwar.
But their lives will be impacted again whichever way the court decides next week.
The Star/Asia News Network