Thursday’s appointment of Anwar as prime minister has brought a tentative end to a chaotic election season that has caused the ouster of political titan Mahathir Mohamad, surprise gains by a far-right Islamic party and endless power struggles between alleged allies, in large part due to the condemnation of the disgraced fallen former Prime Minister Najib Razak, among other things, for money laundering and abuse of power.
After consulting with Malaysia’s state rulers, the king approved the appointment of Anwar as the 10th prime minister of Malaysia, Istana Negara, the seat of the Malaysian 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 Anwar, 75. He is the founder of the country’s political movement Reformasi, which has campaigned for 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.
This Malaysian politician has been arrested and denounced. Now he stands on the threshold of power.
A former deputy to Mahathir who later became known as his bitter rival, Anwar strove for decades to reach the highest 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 sentences on sodomy and corruption charges — convictions that Anwar and his supporters say were politically motivated.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic reformist coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, won 82 seats after last week’s elections. The alliance was the largest single bloc, but also several dozen seats fewer than the 112 they needed to form a majority. They have taken on Perikatan Nasional (PN), a right-wing national coalition that has won 73 seats, in a bid to win allies and convince voters – as well as monarch Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah – that they have the mandate to take the next one to form the country’s government.
Anwar’s accession was made possible after Barisan Nasional, a conservative coalition that has ruled Malaysia for most of its post-independence history, said it would not participate in a PN-led government. Barisan won 30 seats in the last polls, placing it in a king’s position.
While Anwar has emerged victorious, he now faces a major challenge in uniting the country’s divided electorate, analysts say.
Anwar, for example, has long opposed the race-based positive action policies that have been a hallmark of previous Barisan-led governments. Policies favoring Malaysian Muslims have created a large middle class in the country of 32.5 million, some experts say. But other critics blame the laws for sparking racist animosity, an exodus of young people from Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities from the country, and fueling systemic corruption.
Rafizi Ramli, deputy leader of Anwar’s party, said the new prime minister would lead a “government of unity”.
“We must all move forward and learn to work together to rebuild Malaysia,” he said in a statement, also urging Malaysians to ease political tensions by avoiding “provocative” messages or gatherings.
Among the biggest surprises of the election was the surge in support for the Malaysian Islamic Party, known as the PAS, which more than doubled its seats in parliament to 49 political leaders in recent years and formed partnerships with other parties supporting a pro-Muslim Malaysian party support politics.
She ran in that election as part of PN, the coalition led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The PAS will be the largest single party in the lower house of parliament in a country that has longstanding security and economic ties with the United States.
“Nobody saw that happen… I’m personally stunned,” said James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics. He said the success of PAS reflected a broader rise of political Islam in Malaysia, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country with a Muslim majority.
Liberal and non-Malay Muslim voters fear a strengthened PAS would be able to claim significant positions, including in the education ministry, he said. “People are afraid that they will introduce more Islamic curricula in schools.”
While Malaysia, along with its neighbor Indonesia, has long advertised itself as moderate Islamic nations, that could change, Chin said. PAS made its strongest gains in rural areas and there is early evidence that they have garnered support from new voters, including young Malays.
Ang reported from Seoul. Emily Ding in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Hari Raj in Seoul contributed to this report.