Anwar Ibrahim is Malaysia’s prime minister after astonishing journey

In a remarkable comeback, Anwar Ibrahim on Thursday sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister, after King Sultan Abdullah invited him to form the government, thus ending days of political wrangling.

The process caps a three-decade long political journey from a protege of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader, to a prisoner convicted of sodomy, to opposition leader and, finally, prime minister.

Markets surged upon the end of the political deadlock. The ringgit currency posted its best day in two weeks and equities rose 3 percent on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange.

The uncertainty over the election threatened to prolong political instability in the country, which has had three prime ministers in as many years, and risks delaying policy decisions needed to foster economic recovery.

Anwar leads a multi-ethnic coalition of parties with progressive leanings while former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s alliance reflects more conservative, ethnic Malay, Muslim views.

Earlier, a general election on Saturday ended in an unprecedented hung parliament with neither of two main alliances immediately able to secure enough seats in parliament to form a government.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the most seats in the election, but not the 112-seat parliamentary majority necessary to form a government.

PH and the rival conservative Malay-Muslim Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition under Muhyiddin, which had the second-highest number of seats, both began negotiations to form a government.

During the process, they wooed smaller coalitions in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak as well as Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysia for some 60 years before its historic defeat in the last elections in 2018.

With neither able to make a breakthrough, the king met Anwar and Muhyiddin, as well as newly-elected members of parliament to canvas their views on who should lead the new government.

After a meeting of the royal households on Thursday, Anwar was announced as the leader because the king was convinced that he had the support of the majority of Malaysia’s 222 members of parliament.

The PH coalition made up of Anwar’s Keadilan party, the Democratic Action Party, Amanah and the youth party MUDA.

There are “no absolute winners and no absolute losers,” King Sultan Abdullah said in the statement, urging all politicians to work together for the benefit of the country.

High turnout

Official figures showed a record number of Malaysians casting their ballots, with PH securing 5.81 million votes, PN 4.67 million and BN 3.43 million.

The electoral roll had been enlarged after a constitutional change to give 18-year-olds the right to vote and for automatic voter registration, which further increased uncertainty over the outcome.

Who is Anwar Ibrahim?

Anwar started his political career as a student activist, founding the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, known by its Malay acronym ABIM, in 1971 and later leading protests against rural poverty and on other socioeconomic causes.

His activism caught the eye of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who persuaded him to join the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in BN, which had ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

He rose rapidly through the ranks to become finance minister and deputy prime minister, earning a reputation as a charismatic, ambitious and reform-minded politician.

But as the Asian financial crisis deepened, Mahathir turned on the man he had chosen as his successor. In September 1998, Anwar was sacked and accused of corruption and sodomy, a crime in Malaysia.

Thousands took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Anwar, who maintained the charges were politically motivated, was arrested.

His trial veered from the shocking – a black eye later confirmed to be inflicted by the then-police chief while Anwar was in custody – to the absurd – a stained mattress hauled into court as evidence.

After being found guilty, Anwar was released in 2004 and a second sodomy trial followed as the reform movement that had begun with his 1998 downfall gathered momentum. In all, Anwar spent some 10 years in prison before he was finally pardoned and released in 2018.

By then he had once again joined forces with Mahathir – under the PH banner – in a bid to ensure BN was punished at the ballot box for the multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

But Anwar’s route to the top was again thwarted when Mahathir wavered on his promise to hand over power and the PH government collapsed amid infighting and pressure from Malay-Muslim conservatives.

Reform agenda

Chants of reform continued to reverberate around PH rallies in the campaign leading up to Saturday’s election, with PH supporters looking for a government that would tackle corruption, defend democratic freedoms and ensure the independence of key institutions such as parliament and the judiciary.

Anwar told supporters that his government would also reduce the size of the cabinet, and cut ministerial salaries and allowances.

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where most people are ethnic Malay Muslim, but there are significant numbers of people of Chinese and Indian origin as well as Indigenous communities. The previous PH government was partly undone by a reform agenda that Malay nationalists feared would undermine the privileges granted to them under the constitution.

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