Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — More than two decades after he dramatically defected from the government and was jailed, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim finally has his day.
Anwar was named Malaysia’s 10th prime minister by the country’s king on Thursday, beating out a Malay nationalist leader to take the top job after a split general election led to a hung parliament.
Becoming prime minister caps Anwar’s roller-coaster political journey from a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and jailing in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that has emerged as a major political force. It is the second victory for his reformist bloc, which won the polls in 2018 but lost power after 22 months in a power struggle that has led to ongoing political turmoil.
Last Saturday’s election, which was supposed to end the instability that has led to three prime ministers since 2018, instead created more uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate. Anwar’s multi-ethnic Alliance of Hope led with 82 seats, short of the 112 required for a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance won 73 seats, while its ally, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, became the largest party with 49 seats.
Anwar won after smaller blocs agreed to support him in forming a unity government. Still, he faces a tall order to bridge the racial divide that deepened after Saturday’s poll and revive an economy struggling with rising inflation and a weakened currency. Two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people are Malays, including large Chinese and Indian minorities.
“Anwar’s political struggle is on a similar level to that of (South Africa’s) Nelson Mandela, as they both went through a lot of persecution during the democratization process of their countries,” said Ei Sun Oh of the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore. “They hope with Anwar as well. Malaysia can return to a more open and inclusive society and economy that will hopefully restore its prestige on the world stage.”
Anwar, 75, was twice at the top of power.
As a rebellious youth leader, Anwar founded an Islamic youth movement before being recruited into the then ruling United Malays National Organization. He enjoyed an extraordinary rise in the 1990s, when he became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. He was poised to take over from then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but in the bitter aftermath of Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis, Anwar was sacked in September 1998, detained without trial, and charged with sodomy and corruption.
Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest Anwar’s treatment. When Anwar was brought to court with a black eye nine days after his arrest – for assaulting the country’s then police chief in custody – it quickly became a symbol of the new People’s Justice Party and its reformist agenda. In 1999, he was jailed for six years for sodomy and a year later for a further nine years for corruption – charges which Anwar says are a political plot by Mahathir to end his career. His case has drawn international criticism, with Amnesty International calling Anwar a “prisoner of conscience”.
Anwar was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power.
But Anwar was jailed for a second time in 2015 for sodomy – in a case he said was aimed at breaking up his alliance, which was profiting from the UMNO-led government. Still, he didn’t give up.
From his prison cell, Anwar reconciled with Mahathir, who returned to politics amid anger over the multibillion-dollar scandal involving state investment fund 1MDB. Their reunification led to historic 2018 polls that showed an unimaginable ouster of the UMNO-led alliance that had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
After the victory, Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at the age of 92. Anwar was soon pardoned and would have succeeded Mahathir, but infighting led to the collapse of their government after 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a fractious government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance, which includes a hardline Islamic ally.
Nevertheless, Anwar’s brief reign of Pakatan Harapan led to significant upheaval as former UMNO power leaders were jailed or put on trial. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been jailed in connection with the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current head of UMNO, and several party leaders are also fighting separate corruption charges.
Anwar campaigned on a multi-ethnic platform, promising to end racial and religious bigotry and lose billions of dollars to entrenched corruption. After a long battle, he finally succeeded in his stubborn mission on Thursday.