The naming of Anwar as prime minister on Thursday brought a temporary end to a chaotic election season that has seen the fall of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, surprising gains by a far-right Islamic party and endless infighting among supposed allies, caused in large part by the conviction of disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak on charges including money laundering and abuse of power.
After consulting with state-level rulers earlier in the day, Malaysia’s king said Thursday afternoon that he had approved the appointment of Anwar as the country’s 10th prime minister, and Anwar was sworn in several hours later. In Malaysia, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the king formally names the head of government.
The appointment, which was contested by some opponents, marks a dramatic comeback for Anwar, 75, an international figure whose political rise, fall and return has spanned generations.
Anwar founded the country’s Reformasi political movement, which has rallied since the 1990s for social justice and equality. He is also well known as a proponent of Muslim democracy, and has previously professed admiration for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once seen as a moderate Democrat. Islam is the state religion in Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has significant economic and security ties with the United States, but other faiths are widely practiced.
This Malaysian politician was jailed and denounced. He is now on the cusp of power.
A former deputy prime minister under Mahathir, who was later regarded as his bitter rival before they reconciled, Anwar strove for decades to reach the country’s top political post. Along the way, he earned the support and friendship of international leaders such as former US vice president Al Gore. He also served two lengthy stints in prison for sodomy and corruption — convictions that Anwar and his supporters say were politically motivated.
Anwar’s multiethnic 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 still several dozen seats shy of the 112 that it needed to form a majority. It raced against Perikatan Nasional (PN), a right-wing coalition that won 73 seats, to persuade voters — as well as the country’s monarch, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang — that it has a mandate to form the next government.
Anwar’s accession was made possible after Barisan Nasional, a conservative coalition that has governed Malaysia for most of its post-independence history, said that it would not participate in a PN-led government. Barisan Nasional won 30 seats in the latest polls, placing it in a kingmaking position.
While Anwar may have proved triumphant, he now faces the steep challenge of uniting the country’s divided electorate, analysts say.
“Polarization [in Malaysia] remains strong,” said Bridget Welsh, a research associate with the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute-Malaysia. While Anwar has a strong image on the world stage, he has a “weak mandate” at home, she said.
Anwar opposes the race-based affirmative action policies that were a hallmark of past Barisan Nasional-led governments. The policies, which favor Malay Muslims, are credited by some analysts for creating a broad-based middle class in the country of 32.5 million. But critics blame the laws for triggering racial animosity, driving young people from Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities out of the country, and engendering systemic corruption.
In the lead-up to the election, PN leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin made the antisemitic claim that Anwar’s coalition was working with Jews and Christians to “Christianize” Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Council of Churches condemned Muhyiddin’s remarks and Anwar criticized his rival’s comments as desperate. “I urge Muhyiddin to be a mature leader and not use racial propaganda to divide the plural reality in Malaysia,” he said on Twitter.
Following the announcement of Anwar’s appointment, Muhyiddin held a news conference where he called on his rival to prove that he had the numbers needed to rule. He claimed that his coalition had the support of 115 members of parliament, which would constitute a majority.
Regardless of whether they supported him, the appointment of a new prime minister allows Malaysians to put a pin in two years of political turmoil that included the resignation of two prime ministers, allegations of power-grabbing and a snap election held in the middle of the tropical country’s monsoon season. After polls closed and it became clear that no single bloc could command a majority alone, confusion spread over who would lead the country. The king summoned party leaders to the palace for hours of closed-door discussions, pushing back his decision from day to day.
“We have been waiting for some stability, for democracy to be restored, for a while,” said Adrian Pereira, a labor rights activist from the western state of Selangor. Voters are still eager to see what coalition Anwar has built and how power sharing will work, “but for now, it’s kind of a relief for everyone,” he said.
Rafizi Ramli, deputy head of Anwar’s party, said Thursday that the new prime minister will lead a “unity government.”
“We all need to move forward and learn to work together to rebuild Malaysia,” he added in a statement that also urged Malaysians to ease political tensions by avoiding “provocative” messages or gatherings.
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Among the biggest surprises of the election was the spike 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 for eventually 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 rule, PAS will be the single largest party in the lower house of parliament.
Before Anwar was sworn in on Thursday evening, PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang posted a statement thanking voters for their support. The party’s “71 years of struggle in Malaysia is increasingly accepted by people,” he said.
James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics, said he was “gobsmacked” by the electoral success of PAS, which he sees as reflective of a broader rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
While Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have long touted themselves as moderate Islamic nations, this may now be changing, Chin said. PAS made its strongest gains in rural areas, he noted, and there is early evidence that they received the support of new voters, including young Malays. Liberal and non-Malay-Muslim voters now worry that a strengthened PAS is positioned to expand its influence, including over the country’s educational policies.
“I knew that PAS had heavy support in the Malay heartland… But I still didn’t know they could expand so quickly,” Chin said. “No one did.”
Katerina Ang reported from Seoul and Emily Ding reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hari Raj in Seoul contributed to this report.