Anwar Ibrahim becomes Malaysia’s leader in comeback for anti-graft reformer
The naming of Anwar as prime minister on Thursday brought a halt to a chaotic election season in Malaysia that has seen the fall of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, surprising gains by a far-right Islamic party and endless infighting among supposed allies, caused in large part by the conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak on charges including money laundering and abuse of power.
“This is a unity government,” Anwar said on Thursday evening at his first news conference as prime minister. Alternating between Malay and English, he pledged to stamp out the corruption that has sullied Malaysian politics in recent years and expressed gratitude to the supporters who have stood by him over decades.
“We will uphold the rights of all citizens,” he said. “And we would like all citizens to work with us.”
Earlier in the day, Malaysia’s king announced that he had approved the appointment of the veteran politician as the country’s 10th prime minister. In Malaysia, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the king formally names the head of government.
The moment marks a dramatic comeback for Anwar, 75, an internationally known figure whose political rise, fall and return has spanned generations. He now faces the daunting task of leading a country of 32.5 million as it grapples with a divided electorate, a global economic slowdown, and intensifying geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia between China and the United States.
Anwar founded the country’s Reformasi political movement, which has rallied since the 1990s for social justice and equality. He is also well known as a proponent of Muslim democracy and has professed admiration for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once seen as a moderate Democrat. Islam is the state religion in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but other faiths are widely practiced.
A former deputy prime minister under Mahathir, who was later regarded as his bitter rival before they reconciled, Anwar strove for decades to reach the country’s top political post. He also served two lengthy stints in prison for sodomy and corruption — convictions that Anwar says were politically motivated.
As he left his news conference, Anwar chanted a slogan that has served as a rallying cry throughout his political career. “Lawan sampai menang!” he yelled before being mobbed by supporters. Fight until you win.
Anwar’s multiethnic reformist coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, won 82 seats after last week’s election. The alliance was the largest single bloc but still several dozen seats shy of the 112 that it needed to form a majority. It raced against Perikatan Nasional (PN), a right-wing coalition that won 73 seats, to persuade voters — as well as the country’s monarch, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang — that it has a mandate to form the next government.
The new premier said his mandate was made possible with the support of two key groups, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, a regional alliance that won 23 seats, and Barisan Nasional, a conservative coalition that has governed Malaysia for most of its post-independence history. Barisan Nasional, which said Thursday that it would not participate in a PN-led government, won 30 seats in the latest polls, placing it in a kingmaking position.
While Anwar may have proved triumphant, he is now tasked with earning the trust of a growing conservative Muslim community that regards him as too liberal, analysts say. He campaigned on promises to clean up government and create a more equal society, but he may find himself hamstrung by the parties he allied himself with to rule.
Anwar opposes the race-based affirmative action policies that were a hallmark of past Barisan Nasional-led governments. The policies, which favor Malay Muslims, are credited by some analysts for creating a broad-based middle class in Malaysia. But critics blame the laws for triggering racial animosity, driving young people from Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities out of the country, and engendering systemic corruption.
In the lead-up to the election, PN leader and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin made the antisemitic claim that Anwar’s coalition was working with Jews and Christians to “Christianize” Malaysia. Anwar criticized his rival’s comments as desperate, retorting that Muhyiddin was trying to “use racial propaganda to divide the plural reality in Malaysia.”
Following the announcement of Anwar’s appointment, Muhyiddin held a news conference and questioned his opponent’s mandate to rule. Anwar said on Thursday evening that he welcomed PN to work with his coalition, but it was not immediately clear whether Muhyiddin planned to accept the invitation.
“Polarization [in Malaysia] remains strong,” said Bridget Welsh, a research associate with the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute-Malaysia.
Regardless of whether they supported him, many Malaysians welcomed the appointment of a new premier, which has allowed them to put a pin in two years of political turmoil that included the resignation of two prime ministers, allegations of power-grabbing and a snap election held during the tropical country’s monsoon season.
After polls closed and it became clear that no single bloc could command a majority alone, confusion spread over who would lead. The king summoned party leaders to the palace for closed-door discussions, pushing back his decision from day-to-day.
“We have been waiting for some stability, for democracy to be restored, for a while,” said Adrian Pereira, a labor rights activist from the western state of Selangor. Voters are still eager to see how power will be shared, “but for now, it’s kind of a relief for everyone,” he said.
Among the biggest surprises of the election was the spike in support for the Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, which more than doubled its seats in parliament, from 18 to 49. The party, which ran as part of Muhyiddin’s PN, advocates for eventual Islamic rule in Malaysia and has emerged as a power broker in recent years, forming partnerships with other parties that support pro-Malay-Muslim policies.
While Anwar’s coalition will rule, PAS will be the single largest party in the lower house of parliament.
Before Anwar was sworn in on Thursday evening, PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang posted a statement thanking voters for their support. The party’s “71 years of struggle in Malaysia is increasingly accepted by people,” he said.
James Chin, a professor at Australia’s University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics, said he was “gobsmacked” by the electoral success of PAS, which he sees as reflective of a broader rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
While Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have long touted themselves as moderate Islamic nations, this may now be changing, Chin said. PAS made its strongest gains in rural areas, he noted, and there is early evidence that they received the support of new voters, including young Malays. Liberal and non-Malay-Muslim voters now worry that a strengthened PAS is positioned to expand its influence, including over the country’s educational policies.
“I knew that PAS had heavy support in the Malay heartland. … But I still did not know they could expand so quickly,” Chin said. “No one did.”
Ding reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Ang from Seoul. Hari Raj in Seoul contributed to this report.