Uzair Ali looks at an amazing victory
The epic comeback of Anwar Ibrahim is one of those rare individuals who went to the depths of destitution but never lost heart and kept on struggling to break his shackles. He ultimately did after a long struggle of twenty years and finally attained his lifelong ambition of attaining the coveted post of the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He was sworn in as the 10th prime minister of his country trumping a Malay nationalist leader to clinch the top job after divisive general elections led to a hung Parliament. The election that was supposed to end political instability that had led to three prime ministers since 2018, instead produced new uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate. Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic Alliance of Hope, led with 82 seats, fell short of the 112 needed for a majority with Muhyiddin’s right-leaning National Alliance winning 73 seats and its ally Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party emerging as the biggest single party with 49 seats.
Amidst the confounding political situation Anwar Ibrahim emerged as a moral victor whose roller-coaster political journey became stuff of legends in which he, from a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests led to a reform movement that rose into a major political force. It is a second victory for Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist bloc, which won 2018 polls but lost power after 22 months due to a power struggle that has led to continuous political turmoil. Anwar Ibrahim emerged victorious after smaller blocs agreed to back him to form a unity government. Still, he faces a tall task in bridging racial divides that deepened after polls and reviving an economy struggling with rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point.
Seventy-five year old Anwar Ibrahim was a firebrand youth leader who founded an Islamic youth movement before he was recruited into the then-ruling United Malays National Organization. He enjoyed a meteoric rise to become deputy prime minister-cum-finance minister in the 1990s. He was groomed to take over from then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad but a bitter fallout over Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis saw Anwar sacked in September 1998, detained without trial and then charged with sodomy and corruption.
Large crowds took to the streets to protest Anwar’s treatment and when he was brought to court with a black eye nine days after his arrest — due to an assault in custody by the country’s then police chief — it quickly became a symbol for his new People’s Justice Party and its vows for reforms. He was jailed six years for sodomy in 1999 and a year later, another nine years for corruption — charges Anwar said were a political conspiracy by Mahathir to end his career. His case drew international criticism, with Amnesty International calling Anwar a “prisoner of conscience.”
Anwar Ibrahim was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power. But Anwar was imprisoned a second time for sodomy in 2015 — in a case he said was aimed at crushing his alliance which was making gains against the UMNO-led government but he refused to give up. From his prison cell, Anwar made up with Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger boiled over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund. Their reunion led to historic 2018 polls that saw the unthinkable ouster of the UMNO-led alliance, which had led since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned shortly after and would have succeeded Mahathir but infighting led to their government’s collapse just after 22 months. Still, the brief rule by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan led to a significant upheaval as once-power UMNO leaders were jailed or brought to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was imprisoned in a case linked to the 1MDB saga.
Anwar campaigned on a multiracial platform, promising to end racial and religious bigotry and plug billions of dollar lost to entrenched corruption and he finally succeeded in his dogged quest after a long battle. After taking over the mantle of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has promised to help the country embrace multi-culturalism. Malaysia has long adopted a policy of institutionalised affirmative action favouring the ethnic Malay majority over its sizable Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian minorities.
It is quite obvious that overcoming decades of polarisation over race, religion and reform in the Muslim-majority nation will not come easy, not least because experts do not rule out attempts by rivals in his new government to topple his leadership. While two-thirds of Anwar Ibrahim’s cabinet will be made up of members of his Pakatan Harapan reformist coalition, in a gesture of national unity he has agreed that the remaining posts will be given to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and representatives of the Barisan Nasional coalition, which includes several UMNO politicians that he did so much to topple. TW