Anwar’s appointment as prime minister on Thursday brought to a halt a chaotic election season in Malaysia that saw the fall of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, a surprise victory by a right-wing Islamist party and endless infighting between supposed allies, fueled in large part. with the conviction of former Prime Minister Najib Razak on charges including money laundering and abuse of power.
“This is a unity government,” Anwar said Thursday evening in his first press conference as prime minister. Switching between Malay and English, he vowed to stamp out the corruption that has marred Malaysian politics in recent years and thanked supporters who have stood by him for decades.
“We will defend the rights of all citizens,” he said. “And we would like all residents to work with us.”
Earlier in the day, the King of Malaysia announced that he had approved the appointment of a veteran politician as the country’s 10th Prime Minister. In Malaysia, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the king officially names the head of government.
That moment marks a dramatic comeback for Anwar, 75, an internationally renowned figure whose political rise, fall and comeback has spanned generations. He now faces the daunting task of leading a country of 32.5 million people as it grapples with a divided electorate, a global economic slowdown and escalating geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia between China and the United States.
Anwar founded the national political movement Reformasi, which has rallied for social justice and equality since the 1990s. He is also well known as a supporter of Muslim democracy and has expressed admiration for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once considered a moderate democrat. Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, which is majority Muslim, but other faiths are widely practiced.
This Malaysian politician was jailed and condemned. He is now on the brink of power.
Under former deputy prime minister Mahathir, who was later seen as his bitter rival before the reconciliation, Anwar spent decades striving for the country’s highest political office. He also served two long prison terms for sodomy and corruption, which Anwar said were politically motivated.
As he left the press conference, Anwar shouted a slogan that has served as a rallying cry throughout his political career. “Lawan sampai menang!” he shouted before being mobbed by supporters. Resist until you win.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic reformist coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, won 82 seats in last week’s election. The Alliance was the largest bloc, but was still several dozen seats short of the 112 it needed to form a majority. It competed with Perikatan Nasional (PN), a right-wing coalition that won 73 seats, to convince voters as well as the country’s monarch, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, that it had the mandate to form the next government.
The new prime minister said his tenure was made possible by two main groups, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, a regional alliance that won 23 seats, and Barisan Nasional, the conservative coalition that has governed Malaysia for most of its post-independence history. Barisan Nasional, which announced on Thursday that it will not take part in a PN-led government, won 30 seats in the latest polls, putting it in the lead.
While Anwar may have triumphed, he is now tasked with earning the trust of a growing conservative Muslim community that sees him as too liberal, analysts say. He campaigned on promises to clean up government and create a more equal society, but he could be upset by the parties he allied with to govern.
Anwar opposes race-based affirmative action policies that have been a hallmark of previous Barisan Nasional-led governments. Some analysts acknowledge that policies favoring Malay Muslims have created a broad middle class in Malaysia. But critics blame the laws for stoking racial animosity, driving young Malaysian Indian and Chinese minorities out of the country and fueling systemic corruption.
Before the election, PN leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin made an anti-Semitic claim that Anwar’s coalition was working with Jews and Christians to “Christianize” Malaysia. Anwar slammed his rival’s comments as desperate, replying that Muhyiddin was trying to “use racial propaganda to divide the plural reality in Malaysia”.
After announcing Anwar’s appointment, Muhyiddin held a press conference and questioned his opponent’s credentials to rule. Anwar said on Thursday night that he welcomed the PN’s cooperation with his coalition, but it was not immediately clear whether Muhiiddin planned to accept the invitation.
“Polarization [in Malaysia] is still going strong,” said Bridget Welsh, research fellow for Malaysia at the University of Nottingham’s Asian Research Institute.
Whether or not they supported him, many Malaysians welcomed the appointment of a new prime minister, which allowed them to avert two years of political turmoil that included the resignation of two prime ministers, accusations of a power grab and snap elections. during the monsoon season of a tropical country.
After the polls closed and it became clear that no bloc could agree with a majority, there was uncertainty about who would lead. The king summoned the party leaders to the palace for closed talks, delaying his decision from day to day.
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“We have been waiting for some time for stability, for the restoration of democracy,” said Adrian Pereira, a labor rights activist from the western state of Selangor. Voters still want to see how power will be distributed, “but for now it’s kind of a relief for everybody,” he said.
One of the election’s biggest surprises was support for the Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, which more than doubled its seats in parliament from 18 to 49. The party ran as part of Muhyiddin’s PN., advocates for eventual Islamic rule in Malaysia and has become a power broker in recent years, partnering with other parties that support pro-Malay and pro-Muslim politics.
As long as Anwar’s coalition is in power, PAS will be the single largest party in the lower house of parliament.
Before Anwar was sworn in on Thursday night, PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awan posted a statement thanks voters for their support. The party’s “71-year struggle in Malaysia is increasingly being accepted by the people,” he said.
James Chin, a professor at Australia’s University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics, said he was “shocked” by PAS’s electoral success, which he said reflected the broader rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
While Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have long billed themselves as moderate Islamic countries, that may now be changing, Chin said. He noted that PAS has made the biggest gains in rural areas and there are early signs that they have gained the support of new voters, including young Malays. Liberal and non-Malay and Muslim voters now worry that a strengthened PAS is poised to expand its influence, including over national education policy.
“I knew PAS had a lot of support in Central Malaya… But I still didn’t 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.