Malaysia’s Anwar becomes prime minister, ending a decades-long wait

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday, ending a three-decade political journey from protégé of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader, convicted sodomy prisoner and opposition leader .

His appointment ends five days of unprecedented post-election crisis, but could lead to fresh instability with his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, challenging him to prove his majority in parliament.

Both fell short of a majority in Saturday’s election, but constitutional monarch King Al-Sultan Abdullah nominated Anwar after speaking with several lawmakers.

Anwar takes over at a difficult 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 Muslim alliance.

Markets rallied at the end of the political stalemate. The ringgit currency posted its best day in two weeks and shares rose 3%.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad listens during an interview in Purtrajaya, Malaysia, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. The six-decade rule of Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition may be coming to an end, according to the oldest in Malaysia.  prime minister Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Marc Lourdes reported on the Malaysian elections for CNN in 2018

Anwar, 75, has been repeatedly denied the prime ministership despite being at arm’s length over the years – he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and the official prime minister-in-waiting in 2018.

In between, he spent nearly a decade in prison for sodomy and corruption in what he says were politically motivated charges meant to end 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 risks delaying political decisions needed to boost economic recovery.

Anwar’s supporters expressed hope that his government would avoid a return to historic tension between the ethnic Malay, Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

“All we want is moderation for Malaysia and Anwar represents that,” said a communications official in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to be identified by her surname Tang.

“We cannot have a country divided by race and religion as that will set us back another 10 years.”

Anwar told Reuters in an interview before the election that he would seek to “emphasize governance and the fight against corruption, and rid this country of racism and religious bigotry” if appointed prime minister.

His coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional bloc won 73. They needed 112 – a simple majority – to form a government.

The long-ruling Barisan bloc won just 30 seats, the worst electoral performance by a coalition that had dominated politics since independence in 1957.

Barisan said on Thursday it would not support a Muhyiddin-led government, although it made no reference to Anwar.

Muhyiddin, after Anwar’s appointment, asked him to prove his majority in parliament.

Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Islamist PAS party, whose electoral gains raised concerns among members of the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities, most of whom follow other faiths.

Authorities warned after the weekend vote of increased ethnic tension on social media, and short video platform TikTok said it was on high alert for content that violated its guidelines.

Social media users reported numerous TikTok posts since the election mentioning a riot in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on May 13, 1969, in which around 200 people died, days after the parties of the opposition supported by ethnic Chinese voters advanced in an election.

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 rested with King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, after both Anwar and Muhyiddin missed a Tuesday afternoon deadline to form a ruling alliance.

The constitutional monarch plays a mainly ceremonial role, but can appoint a prime minister he believes will have a majority in parliament.

Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy in which kings are chosen in turn from the royal families of nine states to reign for a five-year term.

As prime minister, Anwar will have to tackle rising inflation and slowing growth as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, while also calming ethnic tensions.

The most immediate issue will be next year’s budget, which was presented before the election was called but has not yet been approved.

Anwar will also have to negotiate deals with lawmakers from other blocs to ensure he can maintain majority support in parliament.

“Anwar is appointed at a critical time in Malaysia’s history, where politics is at its most fractured, recovering from a depressed economy and a bitter memory of Covid,” said James Chai, visiting researcher at the ISEAS Institute- Yusof Ishak from Singapore.

“Always regarded as the man who could unite all warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar emerged during a time of division.”

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