Anwar’s appointment as prime minister on Thursday ended a chaotic election season in Malaysia that saw the fall of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, surprise gains by a far-right Islamic party and endless infighting between supposed allies caused in large part by the conviction of the former prime minister Najib Razak on charges including money laundering and abuse of power.
“This is a government of unity,” Anwar said Thursday night at his first news conference as prime minister. Alternating between Malay and English, he vowed to root out the corruption that has tainted Malaysian politics in recent years and thanked supporters who have supported him for decades.
“We will protect the rights of all citizens,” he said. “And we would like all citizens to work with us.”
Earlier in the day, the King of Malaysia 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 appoints the head of government.
The moment marks a dramatic comeback for Anwar, 75, an internationally renowned figure whose political rise, fall and comeback spanned generations. He now faces the difficult task of leading a country of 32.5 million that is grappling with a divided electorate, a global economic slowdown and rising geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia between China and the United States.
Anwar founded the country’s Reformasi political movement, which has been rallying since the 1990s for social justice and equality. 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 Muslim Malaysia, but other religions are widely practiced.
This Malaysian politician was jailed and convicted. Now he is at the pinnacle of power.
A former deputy prime minister under Mahathir, who was later seen as his bitter rival before they reconciled, Anwar struggled for decades to reach the country’s highest political office. He also served two lengthy prison terms for sodomy and corruption, sentences which Anwar said were politically motivated.
As he left his press conference, Anwar chanted a slogan that has served as a rallying cry throughout his political career. “Lawan sampai menang!” he shouted before being attacked by supporters. Fight until you win.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic 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 was still a few dozen seats short of the 112 it needed to form a majority. She was running 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 the support of two key groups, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, a regional alliance that won 23 seats, and Barisan Nasional, a conservative coalition that has ruled Malaysia for most of its post-independence history. Barisan Nasional, which said on Thursday it would not participate in a PN-led government, won 30 seats in the latest polls, putting it in a kingpin position.
While Anwar may emerge victorious, he now has the task of winning the trust of a growing conservative Muslim community that sees him as too liberal, analysts say. He campaigned on promises to clean up the government and create a more equal society, but he may find himself hampered by the parties he has allied with to govern.
Anwar opposes the race-based affirmative action policies that have been the hallmark of past Barisan Nasional-led governments. Policies that favor Malay Muslims are seen by some analysts as creating a broad middle class in Malaysia. But critics accuse the laws of stoking racial animosity, driving young people from Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities out of the country and breeding systemic corruption.
In the run-up to 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 blasted his rival’s comments as desperate, retorting that Muhyiddin was trying to “use racial propaganda to divide Malaysia’s multiple reality”.
After Anwar’s appointment was announced, Muhyiddin held a press conference and questioned his opponent’s mandate to rule. Anwar said on Thursday evening that he welcomed the PN to work with his coalition, but it was unclear whether Muhyiddin planned to accept the invitation.
“Polarization [in Malaysia] remains strong,” said Bridget Welsh, research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute – Malaysia.
Whether or not they supported him, many Malaysians welcomed the appointment of a new prime minister, putting an end to two years of political upheaval that have included the resignation of two prime ministers, allegations of power-grabbing and snap elections held during the tropical monsoon season. country.
After the polls closed and it became clear that no single bloc could control a majority on its own, confusion spread over who would lead. The king summoned party leaders to the palace for closed-door discussions, delaying his decision from day to day.
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“We have been waiting for some time for some stability, for a restoration of democracy,” said Adrian Pereira, a labor rights activist from the western state of Selangor. Voters are still anxious to see how power will be shared, “but for now it’s a relief for everyone,” he said.
Among the election’s biggest surprises was a surge 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 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 govern, PAS will be the largest party in the lower house of parliament.
Before Anwar was sworn in on Thursday evening, PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang published a statement thanked voters for their support. “The party’s 71 years of struggle in Malaysia are 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 “stunned” by PAS’s electoral success, which he saw as a reflection of the broader rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
While Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have long been touted as moderate Islamic nations, that may now change, Chin said. PAS has made its strongest gains in rural areas, he noted, and there is early evidence that it has won the support of new voters, including young Malays. Liberal and non-Malay Muslim voters now worry that a strengthened PAS is able to expand its influence, including over the country’s education policies.
“I knew that PAS had serious support in the Malaysian heartland. … 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. Harry Raj in Seoul contributed to this report.