Anwar’s appointment as prime minister on Thursday put a temporary end to a chaotic election season that saw the fall of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, surprise gains from a far-right Islamist party and endless power struggles between alleged allies, largely triggered by the sentencing of the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak on charges including money laundering and abuse of power.
After consultations with state-level rulers earlier in the day, Malaysia’s king approved Anwar’s appointment as the country’s 10th prime minister, the Istana Negara, the seat of the monarch, said in a statement Thursday afternoon. In Malaysia, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the king formally appoints the head of government.
The announcement marks a dramatic comeback for 75-year-old Anwar. He founded the political movement Reformasi, which has been committed to social justice and equality since the 1990s. He is also known as a supporter of Muslim democracy and has previously expressed his 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 to the United States, but other religions are widely practiced.
This Malaysian politician was imprisoned and charged. He is now on the verge of power.
A former deputy to Mahathir, later regarded as his bitter rival, Anwar aspired for decades to reach the top political post in the country, earning the support and friendship of international leaders such as former US Vice President Al Gore.
He also served two lengthy prison sentences for sodomy and corruption – convictions that Anwar and his supporters say were politically motivated.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic reform coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, won 82 seats after last week’s elections. The alliance was the largest bloc, but also several dozen seats short of the 112 needed to form a majority. It raced against Perikatan Nasional (PN), a right-wing coalition that won 73 seats, to convince voters – as well as the country’s monarch, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah – that it has a mandate to form the next government.
Anwar’s entry was made possible after Barisan Nasional, a conservative coalition that has governed Malaysia for most of its post-independence history, said it would not participate in a PN-led government. Barisan Nasional won 30 seats in the latest polls, placing it in a king position.
While Anwar has proved victorious, he now faces the daunting challenge of uniting the country’s divided electorate, analysts say.
Anwar opposes the race-based affirmative action policies that characterized past governments led by Barisan Nasional. According to some analysts, the policy favoring Malaysian Muslims has created a broad middle class in the country of 32.5 million. But critics blame the laws for inciting racial animosity, driving young people from Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities and causing systemic corruption.
Ahead of the election, PN leader and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made the anti-Semitic claim that Anwar’s coalition was collaborating with Jews and Christians to “Christianize” Malaysia.
Malaysian Council of Churches convicted Muhyiddin’s comments. Anwar also criticized his rival’s comments as desperate. “I urge Muhyiddin to be a mature leader and not to use racial propaganda to divide the pluralistic reality in Malaysia,” he said on Twitter.
Whether or not they supported him, Anwar’s nomination allows Malaysians to lay a pin in two years of political unrest, including the resignation of two prime ministers, allegations of power grabs and early elections in the middle of the tropical country’s monsoon season.
“We have been waiting for some time for some stability, for the restoration of democracy,” said Adrian Pereira, a labor rights activist from the western state of Selangor. Voters are still curious to see what coalition Anwar 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 on Thursday 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 a statement that also urged Malaysians to ease political tensions by avoiding “provocative” messages or gatherings.
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One of 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 was part of Muhyiddin’s PN, advocates for eventual Islamic rule in Malaysia and has emerged as a power broker in recent years, forging partnerships with other parties that support pro-Malaysian-Muslim policies.
While Anwar’s coalition will rule, PAS will be the largest party in the lower house of parliament.
James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics, said he was “stunned” by the success of PAS, which he says reflects a wider rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
While the country, along with neighboring Indonesia, has long touted itself as moderate Islamic nations, this could change, Chin said. PAS made the most gains in rural areas, he noted, and there is early evidence that they gained the support of new voters, including young Malays. Liberal and non-Malaysian Muslim voters are now concerned that a strengthened PAS is in a position to expand its influence, including over the country’s education policy.
“I knew PAS had a lot of support in the Malaysian heartland… But I still didn’t know they could expand so quickly,” said Chin. “No one did.”
Ang reported from Seoul and Ding reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hari Raj in Seoul contributed to this report.