Anwar Ibrahim has been sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister, toppling a Malay nationalist leader to take the top post following divisive general elections caused by a hung parliament.
Becoming prime minister kicks off Anwar’s rollercoaster political journey, from a former deputy prime minister whose dismissal and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement to becoming a significant political force.
It is the second victory for his reformist bloc, which won the 2018 election but lost power 22 months later due to a power struggle that has led to continued political turmoil.
Last Saturday’s election, which was supposed to end instability led by three prime ministers since 2018, instead threw up fresh uncertainty after no party received a clear mandate.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic coalition Asha, leads with 82 seats, less than the 112 needed for a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance won 73 seats, with its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) emerging as the largest single party with 49 seats.
Anwar emerged victorious after the smaller blocs agreed to support Anwar to form a unity government. Still, he faces a tall task in bridging the racial divide that deepened after Saturday’s vote and reviving an economy battling rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point.
Two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people are Malays, including large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Ee Sun Oh of Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs said, “Anwar’s political struggle is comparable to that of (South Africa’s) Nelson Mandela, as both have faced many persecutions in the process of democratizing their countries.”
“It is hoped that with Anwar in charge, Malaysia can return to a more open and inclusive society and economy that will restore its prestige on the world stage.”
Anwar, 75, had been at the pinnacle 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 dismissed in 1998, detained without trial, and then imprisoned. was accused of sodomy and corruption – charges Anwar said were a political conspiracy. Mahathir ends his career Amnesty International calls Anwar a “prisoner of conscience”.
Anwar was freed by Malaysia’s top court in 2004, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power. But he was imprisoned a second time in 2015 for sodomy, a charge he said was aimed at crushing the coalition that was making gains against the UMNO-led government. Still, he did not give up.
From his prison cell, Anwar reconciled with Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger over the multi-billion-dollar scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund rose. Their reelection led to the historic 2018 elections, which saw the unimaginable ouster of the UMNO-led coalition that had led Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957.
After the victory, Mahathir has become the world’s oldest leader at the age of 92. Anwar was pardoned shortly afterwards and succeeded Mahathir, but his government collapsed after only 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a fractious government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc.
Nevertheless, Anwar’s brief rule of Pakatan Harapan led to a significant upheaval as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or brought to court for corruption. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was imprisoned in a case related to the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current head of UMNO, and several party leaders are also facing separate corruption charges.
Anwar campaigned on a multiracial platform, promising to end racial and religious bigotry and stop the billions of dollars lost to corruption. After a long struggle, he finally succeeded in his campaign on Thursday.