KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian lawmakers moved towards censuring opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Thursday, paving the way for his suspension from parliament and raising tensions ahead of a key weekend by-election.
The House of Representatives passed a motion to refer Anwar to the Rights and Privileges Committee over his allegations that the government's "1Malaysia" racial unity slogan was copied from "One Israel", the tagline of a 1999 Israeli political alliance.
The issue has stirred passions in Malaysia, a mainly Muslim country in Southeast Asia that does not recognise Israel diplomatically.
The privileges committee, which will meet in the next session of parliament scheduled in June, would in turn recommend a penalty for Anwar. That could include a ban from parliament.
The move towards a censure further raises tensions as the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak contests Sunday's by-lection, seen as an early verdict of his economic reform pledges after a year in office.
The seat was won by a narrow margin by the opposition when last contested in 2008 and the race is considered too close to call.
"This is a very unhealthy trend, very undemocratic and regressive in nature, it is a complete disregard for the rule of law and runs contrary to democratic principles," Anwar told reporters in parliament's lobby after the vote.
Anwar's allegation, which the government and its advisers have denied, led to a rowdy debate in parliament before the opposition staged a walkout.
"He misled the House because '1Malaysia' is not from 'One Israel'. He knows Muslim Malays are sensitive on Israel so that's why he chose it," said Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.
Anwar is on trial on what he insists is a trumped-up charge of sodomy, a repeat of similar charges made in 1998 when he was dismissed as deputy prime minister. He was initially convicted in that trial but the verdict was overturned.
Political tensions in Malaysia have been high since the 2008 general elections in which the ruling National Front alliance suffered record defeats, losing five of Malaysia's 13 states and its once iron-clad two-thirds control in parliament.
Najib's "1Malaysia" campaign, on billboards all over the country, is aimed at winning back ethnic Chinese and Indian voters to the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 52 years.
Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by Ron Popeski