HomeLatest ArticlesMalaysia PM Anwar Ibrahim capping political journey from protégé of veteran Mahathir...

Malaysia PM Anwar Ibrahim capping political journey from protégé of veteran Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim was Oath in as prime minister on Thursday, capping a three-decade political journey from protégé of veteran Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader, sodomy prisoner and opposition leader. His appointment ends five days of unprecedented post-election crisis but could spark fresh instability with his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, challenging him to prove his majority in parliament.

Both men failed to win a majority in Saturday’s election, but the constitutional monarch, King Al-Sultan Abdullah, appointed Anwar after speaking with several lawmakers. Anwar takes over at a challenging time: the economy is slowing and the country is divided after a close election that pitted Anwar’s progressive coalition against Muhyiddin’s largely conservative ethnic-Malay and Muslim alliance.

Markets rallied after the end of the political stalemate. The ringgit posted its best day in two weeks and shares rose 3%. The 75-year-old Anwar has been denied the prime ministership time and time again, despite having come a remarkable distance over the years: in the 1990s he was deputy prime minister and in 2018 the official acting prime minister.

Meanwhile, he spent nearly a decade in prison for sodomy and corruption in what he says were politically motivated charges aimed at ending his career. Uncertainty over the election threatened to prolong political instability in the Southeast Asian country, which has had three prime ministers in as many years, and threatens to delay policy decisions needed to support economic recovery.

Anwar’s supporters have expressed hope that his government will usher in a return to historic tensions between ethnic Malays, the Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. “All we want is moderation for Malaysia and Anwar represents that,” said a communications manager in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to be identified by her surname Tang.

“We can’t have a country divided by race and religion because that will set us back another 10 years.” Anwar told in a pre-election interview that if appointed prime minister, he would seek to “emphasize governance and the fight against corruption and rid this country of racism and religious fanaticism.” His coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan National Bloc won 73. They needed 112 – a simple majority – to form a government.

The long-ruling Barisan bloc won only 30 seats – the worst electoral performance for the coalition that has dominated politics since independence in 1957. Barisan said on Thursday it would not support a Muhyiddin-led government, although it made no mention of Anwar. After Anwar’s appointment, Muhyiddin asked Anwar to prove his majority in parliament.


Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Islamist PAS party, whose electoral gains have raised concerns among members of the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities, most of whom follow a different faith. Authorities warned of a rise in ethnic tensions on social media after the weekend vote, and the short-form video platform TikTok said it was on high alert for content that violates its guidelines. Social media users have reported numerous TikTok posts since the election referencing riots in the capital Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, in which around 200 people were killed, just days after opposition parties backed by ethnic Chinese voters stormed the polls.

Police told social media users to refrain from “provocative” posts and said they were setting up 24-hour checkpoints on roads across the country to ensure public peace and safety. The decision on the prime minister fell to King Al-Sultan Abdullah after both Anwar and Muhyiddin missed their Tuesday afternoon deadline to put together a ruling alliance. The constitutional monarch plays a largely ceremonial role, but can appoint a prime minister whom he believes will have a majority in parliament.

Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy in which kings are alternately chosen from the royal families of nine states to rule for five years. As prime minister, Anwar will have to deal with soaring inflation and slowing growth as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, while calming ethnic tensions. The most immediate issue will be next year’s budget, which was tabled before the election was called but has not yet been approved. Anwar will also have to negotiate deals with lawmakers from other blocs to secure majority support in parliament.

“Anwar is appointed at a critical moment in Malaysia’s history, where politics is at its most fragmented, recovering from a depressed economy and bitter memories of COVID,” said James Chai, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.”Always regarded as the man who could unite all the warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar has emerged at a time of division.”

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