Anwar Ibrahim Is Prime Minister of Malaysia, After a Wait of Decades
After days of political chaos, Malaysia has a new prime minister, its fifth in less than five years.
The country is now relying on a veteran politician to bring back political stability while leading a polarized electorate — split between one faction that sees itself as modern and multicultural, and another that is driven by a conservative Muslim base — into the post-pandemic world.
This is the task ahead for Anwar Ibrahim, 75, whom the king appointed prime minister on Thursday. It was the culmination of a stunning comeback for Mr. Anwar, whose career has included a stint as deputy prime minister, two jail terms that were considered politically motivated, and, finally, the role of longtime opposition leader.
When Mr. Anwar arrived to a news conference late on Thursday night, his supporters chanted, “Reformasi,” or “Reform,” echoing his battle cry after he was ousted from government more than two decades ago.
Mr. Anwar made light of his long, winding journey to power, telling reporters that his grandson had asked him how long he had to wait for his oath-taking ceremony.
“I said: ‘Not too long, only 24 years,’” Mr. Anwar said, smiling.
His appointment ended, at least for now, a crisis that has engulfed Malaysia for almost a week: Saturday’s national elections, the first since 2018, led to Malaysia’s first ever hung Parliament, with none of the three main competing groups winning a majority of the 222 seats.
Mr. Anwar told reporters that he now had a “convincing majority” with his multiethnic coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), Barisan Nasional — the incumbent coalition that includes Mr. Anwar’s former party, the United Malays National Organization — and the Sarawak Parties Alliance.
Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the head of Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance), said that he would not accept Mr. Anwar’s appointment, arguing that he himself had 115 votes in Parliament. Mr. Anwar said it was “not necessary” for Mr. Muhiyiddin to dispute his appointment but added that he was still open to talks.
“It is a challenge because no one in Malaysian history has come in with this divided a mandate, in this context,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia.
Mr. Anwar’s group had led Saturday’s election with 82 seats. In second place was Perikatan, whose success came largely because of one coalition member, the Malaysian Islamic Party, a conservative party that has called for theocratic Islamic rule in Malaysia. PAS, as the party is known, won 49 seats on its own.
Barisan Nasional was far behind, with 30. The election was seen as a final rebuke to UMNO, which has long been enmeshed in corruption allegations. Mr. Anwar had actively campaigned on the public’s desire for change from UMNO, vowing that he “will not bring with him the corrupt and greedy cultures which we had before.”
The final decision came down to the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah. Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, and the king has the prerogative to name the prime minister in the event of an inconclusive election.
For five days, the coalitions had been locked in various closed-door negotiations, and the king and the rulers of the Malay states met on Thursday to resolve the crisis.
“The fact is, people cannot be burdened by endless political turmoil when what the country needs is a stable government that is able to stimulate the economic landscape and development of the country,” the palace said in a statement.
Mr. Anwar, who was sworn in Thursday evening, rose to political prominence when he was part of the Malay nationalist UMNO, which has prioritized the indigenous Malay population over the country’s minorities. But after a falling out with the party, Mr. Anwar has called for equal treatment of its minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indian.
“Being a minority here, I feel like this is the one sliver of hope that we have left,” said Mahaysyhaa Shriedhaa A/P Gopal, a Malaysian of Indian descent, after she voted for Pakatan Harapan. “Reform is the most immediate hope for now.”
Urbane and charismatic, Mr. Anwar speaks often about the importance of democracy and quotes from Gandhi as well as the Quran.
“The thing about Anwar is that he is a man of many faces,” said Tunku Mohar bin Tunku Mohd Mokhtar, an assistant professor of politics at the International Islamic University Malaysia. “He is viewed as liberal but at the same time, he is also considered to be religious. But his brand of Islam is much more progressive and accommodative, so he is more popular among the urban Malays compared to the rural ones.”
For years, Mr. Anwar was the heir apparent for Mahathir Mohamad, the long time leader of UMNO and Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister. But in the late 1990s, the relationship between Mr. Anwar and Mr. Mahathir deteriorated after Mr. Anwar criticized what he saw as a culture of cronyism within UMNO. Later, both men differed over the handling of the Asian financial crisis, with Mr. Anwar favoring a free-market approach and no bailouts, while Mr. Mahathir blamed the financier George Soros for the currency crisis.
In 1998, Mr. Anwar was fired from the Cabinet. He started a protest movement called Reformasi (Reform) that called for the end of corruption and greater social justice. That year, he was charged with sodomy. Many Malaysians were stunned when he turned up with a black eye in court after he was roughed up by a police chief. Later, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Amnesty International called Mr. Anwar a prisoner of conscience, detained “for holding different opinions to the prime minister,” Mr. Mahathir.
After his release from prison, Mr. Anwar taught abroad before returning home to run for office again. He won a by-election, trouncing UMNO, and was again arrested that year over sodomy charges, which he denies. In 2014, Mr. Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail, a conviction that was widely seen by human rights groups as politically motivated.
But miraculously, Mr. Anwar was back in the orbit of the prime minister’s job in a few years. He had made up with Mr. Mahathir, his former mentor, who had come out of retirement to join the opposition. They successfully ousted the incumbent UMNO government, which was led by Najib Razak, but had another falling out over succession plans.
Now, Mr. Anwar is finally in the seat he has long sought.
“Many Malaysians are invested in his struggles and his family’s struggles,” said Rabi’ah binti Aminudin, an assistant professor in political science at the International Islamic University Malaysia. “They finally see it like a dream come true.”
But Mr. Anwar also will have to contend with a more religiously conservative bloc of the electorate, which sees him as too liberal.
Take, for instance, PAS, the Islamic party that won the largest number of seats in Parliament. The party’s leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, wants the secular Constitution to be interpreted from an “Islamic context.” He has called for the implementation of harsh Islamic laws called “hudud” that allow for punishments including amputation, caning, and stoning to death.
Mr. Anwar took pains to remind the public that he would continue to uphold constitutional guarantees regarding the Malay language, Islam and the special rights of the “sons of the soil,” referring to the Malays and indigenous people.
But he added that no Malaysian, regardless of race or religion, “should be left to feel that they are ignored in any way.” “None should be marginalized under my administration,” Mr. Anwar said.
Liani MK contributed reporting.
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