Anwar Ibrahim has been sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister, trumping a Malay nationalist leader to clinch the top job after divisive general elections led to a hung parliament.
Becoming prime minister caps Anwar’s rollercoaster political journey, from a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s led to enormous street protests and a reform movement that rose into a vital political force.
It is a second victory for his reformist bloc, which won 2018 polls but lost power after 22 months due to a power struggle that has led to continuous political turmoil.
Last Saturday’s election, which was supposed to end the instability that had led to three prime ministers since 2018, instead produced new uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate.
Anwar’s multiethnic Alliance of Hope, led with 82 seats, short of the 112 needed for a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-leaning National Alliance won 73 seats, with its ally Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) emerging as the biggest single party with 49 seats.
Anwar emerged victorious after smaller blocs agreed to back him to form a unity government. Still, he faces a tall task in bridging racial divides that deepened after Saturday’s poll and reviving an economy struggling with rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point.
Malays are two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“Anwar’s political struggle is of a comparable level as (South Africa’s) Nelson Mandela, as both went through many persecutions in the process of democratising their countries,” said Ei Sun Oh with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.
“It is hoped that with Anwar in charge, Malaysia could revert to a more open and inclusive society and economy that would hopefully restore its prestige on the world stage.”
Anwar, aged 75, had been on the cusp of power twice.
A firebrand youth leader, Anwar enjoyed a meteoric rise to become deputy prime minister-cum-finance minister in the 1990s. He was groomed to take over from then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad but a bitter fallout over Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis saw Anwar sacked in 1998, detained without trial and then charged with sodomy and corruption – charges Anwar said were a political conspiracy by Mahathir to end his career. Amnesty International called Anwar a “prisoner of conscience”.
Anwar was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power. But he was imprisoned a second time for sodomy in 2015 in a case he said was aimed at crushing his alliance which was making gains against the UMNO-led government. Yet, he did not give up.
From his prison cell, Anwar made up with Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger boiled over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund. Their reunion led to historic 2018 polls that saw the unthinkable removal of the UMNO-led alliance, which had led since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned shortly after and would have succeeded Mahathir, but infighting led to their government’s collapse just after 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a quarrelsome government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc.
Still, the brief rule by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan led to a significant upheaval as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or brought to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was imprisoned in a case linked to the 1MDB saga. His wife, UMNO’s current chief and several party leaders are also battling separate corruption charges.
Anwar campaigned on a multiracial platform, promising to end racial and religious bigotry and plug billions of dollar lost to entrenched corruption. He finally succeeded in his dogged quest on Thursday after a long battle.