New Malaysian PM Anwar vows to heal divided nation, economy

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Longtime reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday and vowed to heal a racially divided nation, fight corruption and revive an economy struggling with rising living costs.

His rise to the top was a victory for political reformers who have been locked in a battle with Malay nationalists for days after Saturday’s divisive general election led to a deadlocked parliament. Anwar took his oath in a simple ceremony at the national palace that was broadcast on national television.

Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, named Anwar as the nation’s 10th leader after saying he was satisfied Anwar was the candidate likely to have majority support.

At his first press conference, Anwar said he would form a unity government comprising his Alliance of Hope, which won 82 seats, the National Front with 30 seats and a bloc from the eastern state of Sarawak with 23 seats. He said that would give him a majority of 135 seats, with other smaller blocs expected to join.

“There is no doubt about my legitimacy,” Anwar said after his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, disputed that he had majority support. Anwar said his government would propose a vote of confidence when parliament reconvenes on December 19.

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An unexpected surge in ethnic Malay support saw Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance win 73 seats, with its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party emerging as the largest single party with 49 seats.

The stalemate was resolved after the National Front, led by the United Malay National Organization, agreed to support a unity government under Anwar. Such a tie-up was once unthinkable in Malaysian politics, long dominated by a rivalry between the two parties.

“His Royal Highness reminds all parties that winners do not win everything and losers do not lose everything,” the palace said in a statement. Sultan Abdullah has called on all warring parties to reconcile to ensure a stable government and end the political turmoil in Malaysia that has seen three prime ministers since the 2018 election.

The stock market and the Malaysian currency jumped on the news of Anwar’s appointment.

Police had stepped up security across the country as social media posts warned of racial trouble if Anwar’s multi-ethnic bloc won. Anwar’s party urged supporters to refrain from holiday gatherings to avoid the risk of provocation.

Anwar said he wished his victory would bring new hope to Malaysians yearning for a fairer nation, and assured the majority Malay Muslims that they had nothing to fear. He said his priority would be to strengthen the economy as it faces an expected slowdown next year and combat rising inflation.

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Many rural Malays fear they may lose their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting in the long-ruling UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.

“Malaysia is more than six decades old. Every Malaysian, regardless of ethnicity, religious belief or region, especially Sabah and Sarawak, should not feel that they are neglected in any way. No one should be marginalized under my rule,” he said. Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo are among the two poorest states in the country.

Anwar declared Monday a public holiday to mark his bloc’s victory.

Anwar’s elevation to the top post ends his political rollercoaster ride and will ease fears of greater Islamization. But he faces an uphill task in bridging racial divisions that have deepened since Saturday’s election, as well as reviving the economy. Malays make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s population of 33 million, which includes large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

“Anwar is a globalist, which will reassure international investors. He is seen as a bridge-builder between communities, which will test his leadership but at the same time offer a reassuring hand for the challenges Malaysia will face,” said Bridget Welsh, a political expert on Southeast Asia at the University of Malaysia in Nottingham.

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Secretary of State Anthony Blinken congratulated Anwar in a statement, noting that the US looks forward to deepening its friendship with Malaysia.

Anwar, now 75, was a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s led to mass street protests and a reform movement that has become a major political force. Thursday marked his reformist bloc’s second victory – its first being a historic 2018 election that led to the ouster of UMNO and the first regime change after Malaysia’s independence from Great Britain in 1957.

At the time, Anwar was in prison on a sodomy charge, which he said was politically motivated. He was pardoned and was to take over from Mahathir Mohamad. But the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined forces with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was beset by internal rivalries and he resigned after 17 months. Then UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yacob was chosen by the king as Prime Minister.

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