Anwar Ibrahim has been sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister, trumping a Malaysian nationalist leader to take the top job after divisive general elections led to a hung parliament.
Becoming Prime Minister concludes Anwar’s political journey from a former deputy prime minister whose resignation and imprisonment in the 1990s sparked huge street protests and a reform movement that grew into a vital political force.
It is a second win for his reformist bloc, which won the 2018 polls but lost power after 22 months in a power struggle that has led to ongoing political unrest.
Last Saturday’s elections, which were supposed to end the instability that had led to three prime ministers since 2018, instead brought fresh uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic 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) becoming the largest party with 49 seats.
Anwar emerged victorious after smaller blocs agreed to support him to form a government of national unity. Still, he faces the big task of bridging the 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.
Malaysians make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million population, including large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“Anwar’s political struggle is on a par with that of (South Africa) Nelson Mandela, as both have endured many persecutions in the process of democratizing their country,” said Ei Sun Oh of Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.
“It is hoped that, with Anwar at the helm, Malaysia can return to a more open and inclusive society and economy that would hopefully restore its prestige on the global stage.”
Anwar, 75 years old, was on the verge of power twice.
A fiery youth leader, Anwar rose quickly to become Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the 1990s. He was groomed to take over from then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but due to the bitter consequences of Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis, Anwar was dismissed in 1998, held without trial and subsequently charged with sodomy and corruption . Mahathir to end his career. Amnesty International called Anwar a “prisoner of conscience”.
Anwar was released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned his conviction for sodomy, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power. But he was jailed for a second time in 2015 for sodomy in a case he says was designed to crush his alliance, which was making gains against the UMNO-led government. Still, he didn’t give up.
From his prison cell, Anwar made amends to Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger boiled over a billion-dollar scandal involving the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Their reunion sparked landmark 2018 polls that saw the unthinkable removal of the UMNO-led alliance that had led since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Mahathir became the oldest leader in the world after the victory at the age of 92. Anwar was pardoned soon after and would have succeeded Mahathir, but infighting led to the collapse of their government just after 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a quarrelsome government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc.
Yet the short reign of Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan sparked considerable upheaval as the once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or brought to court for bribery. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was imprisoned in a case related to the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current UMNO chief and several party leaders are also battling separate corruption charges.
Anwar campaigned on a multiracial platform, pledging to end racial and religious intolerance and stop billions of dollars lost to entrenched corruption. On Thursday, after a long struggle, he finally succeeded in his persistent quest.