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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's opposition is maintaining its target of toppling the government by mid-September, despite the sodomy allegation against leader Anwar Ibrahim, his wife said on Wednesday.
The opposition, spearheaded by Anwar's People's Justice party, has been wooing defectors from the ruling National Front coalition in its bid to seize power for the first time in Malaysian history.
"Well, optimistically, I think we can keep to the (September) deadline unless we really cannot," said Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also the parliamentary opposition leader, in an interview. Any change of power would be smooth and peaceful, she added.
Opinion polls showed most people believe Anwar, aged 60 and the father of six children, did not commit sodomy against an aide after he was jailed on a similar charge seen as politically motivated a decade ago. That conviction was later overturned.
A survey by the independent Merdeka Center research firm found just 6 percent of respondents believed the allegations and nearly 60 percent viewed it as politically motivated.
"It's going to be an uphill battle for the government because you are facing a more cynical public," said the firm's pollster, Ibrahim Suffian.The survey polled 225 ethnic Malays.
A separate poll by the independent news website, Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com), showed 94 percent of its respondents believed Anwar was the victim of a conspiracy. The government has denied having anything to do with the case.
The former deputy premier said the sodomy accusation pre-empted his plan to announce he was contesting a parliamentary seat in a by-election. Police are investigating the allegation, but no charges have been filed.
Winning a seat would be the first step on the road to Anwar's wider ambition of leading the opposition to power. The opposition alliance made historic gains in a March 8 general election, winning five of 13 state governments and coming within 30 seats of taking control of the 222-member parliament.
Wan Azizah, a 55-year-old eye doctor by training, said she still had faith in Anwar despite this second sodomy claim in 10 years. He was jailed for six years on a similar charge, but the Federal Court overturned the conviction in 2004.
"The first time it didn't work. So they are trying to do it again. It's not right, it's a complete fabrication. Politically, Anwar was gaining strength. It's a desperate measure," she said.
Sodomy, even when consensual, is punishable by up to 20 years in jail in mainly Muslim Malaysia.
Wan Azizah said she pitied her children who have to endure the agony again. "It saddens me, bothers me, upsets me," she said.
The political uncertainty has weighed on the stock market, with the benchmark index losing around 3 percent so far this week. It closed down 1.8 percent on Wednesday.
Ratings agency Fitch, said it was monitoring the impact of the political situation on economic policies.
"The concern that we have would be that the political situation begins to affect the policy outlook. There is not really much evidence of that just yet," James McCormack, head of Asia sovereign ratings at Fitch, told Reuters.
"It appears to us there is a political transition of sorts under way in Malaysia. The question is how fast does that move and how significant is it. And I think some of those answers are still unclear," he said.
The sodomy case emerged at a time when Abdullah's UMNO party has been riven by dissent after its poll setback in March.
More than 7,000 people turned up at an impromptu rally on Tuesday night in the biggest show of support for Anwar since the aide complained to police at the weekend about an alleged assault at a luxury Kuala Lumpur apartment last Thursday.
Anwar told them he would not sit quietly and allow a repeat of what happened to him 10 years ago. "We will fight. When we take over the country, the first thing we will do is to bring down the price of fuel," he said.
Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Ben Tan