Anwar Ibrahim has been named Malaysia’s new prime minister, which means an incredible comeback for a man who was hired for the job for the first time in the boom years of the 1990s before he was suddenly fired and imprisoned.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the most seats in the elections over the weekend, but no party or coalition came out with the parliamentary majority of 112 seats required to form a government.
PH and the rival conservative Malayan-Muslim Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition under former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, which had the second highest number of seats, both began negotiations to form a government and promoted smaller coalitions in the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysia for around 60 years before joining the last elections in 2018.
Since neither of them was able to make a breakthrough, King Sultan Abdullah met Sultan Ahmad Shah Anwar and Muhyiddin, as well as newly elected members of parliament, to express their opinion on who should head the new government.
Following a meeting of royal households on Thursday, the king announced that Anwar would become prime minister because he had the support of the majority of Malaysia’s 222 members of parliament.
There are “no absolute winners and no absolute losers,” he said in the statement, calling on all politicians to work together for the good of the country.
King Sultan Abdullah said the 75-year-old opposition leader would be sworn in at a ceremony in the palace at 5 PM (09:00 GMT).
“It’s a long time coming for Anwar,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director of consulting firm BGA Malaysia, told CNN Breaking News. “All his struggles and reform campaigns are now confirmed.”
Charges against sodomy
Anwar Ibrahim began his political career as a student activist. He founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia in 1971, known by the Malay acronym ABIM, and later led protests against rural poverty and other socio-economic causes.
His activism attracted the attention of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who persuaded him to join the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in BN that had ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
Anwar quickly rose through the ranks to become Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister and earned a reputation as a charismatic, ambitious, and reform-minded politician.
But as the Asian financial crisis worsened, Mahathir turned against the man he had chosen as his successor.
In September 1998, Anwar was released and accused of corruption and sodomy, a crime in Malaysia.
Thousands took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Anwar, who claimed the allegations were politically motivated, was arrested.
His trial ranged from the shocking — a black eye, which was later confirmed by the then chief of police while in Anwar’s detention — to the absurd — of a stained mattress that was brought to court as evidence.
After being found guilty, Anwar was released in 2004, and a second sodomy lawsuit followed as the reform movement that had begun with his fall in 1998 gained momentum.
In total, Anwar spent about 10 years in prison before being finally pardoned and released in 2018.
At that point, he had once again teamed up with Mahathir — under the PH banner — to ensure that BN was punished at the ballot box for the billion-dollar scandal involving the state fund 1MDB.
But Anwar’s path to the top was once again thwarted when Mahathir wavered his promise to relinquish power and the PH government collapsed under power struggles and pressure from Malayo-Muslim conservatives.
In the election campaign ahead of Saturday’s elections, Reforma rallies continue to reverberate after “reformasi” or reforms. PH supporters were looking for a government that would combat corruption, defend democratic freedoms, and ensure the independence of important institutions such as parliament and judiciary.
Faced with a likely economic slowdown, Anwar told his supporters that his government would also reduce the size of the cabinet and cut ministers’ salaries and allowances.
However, all reform measures could still be slowed down by more conservative factions.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where most people are ethnic Malay Muslims, but there are a significant number of people of Chinese and indigenous origin and indigenous communities.
The previous PH government was partly nullified by a reform agenda that Malay Nationalists feared would undermine the privileges granted to them by the Constitution.
Such pressure could also have an impact on the new government, given the growing support for PAS, Malaysia’s religiously conservative Muslim party, which emerged from the election with the most seats in all parties.
It is also the dominant player in PN.
Wong Chin Huat, a policy expert and professor at Sunway University outside Kuala Lumpur, says Anwar must “get the politics right” to fix the economy.
“He must be prime minister for 100 percent of Malaysians, not just 38 percent PH voters and 22 percent of BN voters,” Wong told CNN Breaking News. “In particular, he must reassure the 30 percent of voters who support PN that their votes will be heard.”
Official figures from Saturday’s elections showed that a record number of Malaysians have cast their votes. PH received 5.81 million votes, 4.67 million PN and 3.43 million BN.
Following a constitutional amendment, the voter list was expanded to give 18-year-olds the right to vote and allow automatic voter registrations, which further increased uncertainty about the outcome.