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From prisoner to prime minister, Malaysia’s Anwar has come a long way to the top

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — More than two decades after his dramatic ouster from government and imprisonment, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is finally having his day.

Anwar was named Malaysia’s 10th prime minister by the king of the nation on Thursday, surpassing a Malaysian nationalist leader to seize the top job after divisive general elections left parliament deadlocked.

Becoming prime minister caps Anwar’s political roller coaster ride from a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s sparked massive street protests and a reform movement that rose to become a major political force. It’s a second victory for his reformist bloc, which won the polls in 2018 but lost power after 22 months due to a power struggle that has led to ongoing political turmoil.

Last Saturday’s election, which was meant to end the instability that had resulted in three prime ministers since 2018, instead produced fresh uncertainty after neither party won a clear mandate. Anwar’s multi-ethnic Alliance of Hope, led by 82 seats, was 112 short of a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance won 73 seats, with its ally Pan Malaysian Islamic Party emerging as the largest single party with 49 seats.

Anwar emerged victorious after smaller blocs agreed to help him form a unity government. Still, he faces a tall order to bridge the racial divide that deepened after Saturday’s election and revitalize an economy struggling with rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point. Malaysians make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which includes large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

“Anwar’s political struggle is on a comparable level to (South Africa’s) Nelson Mandela as both have endured many persecutions in the process of democratizing their countries,” said Ei Sun Oh of Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs. “It is hoped that with Anwar at the helm, Malaysia can return to a more open and inclusive society and economy that will hopefully restore its standing on the world stage.”

Anwar, 75, has twice stood on the brink of power.

A fiery youth leader, Anwar founded an Islamic youth movement before being recruited into the then-ruling United Malays National Organization. In the 1990s, he experienced a meteoric rise to deputy prime minister and finance minister. He was set to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but a bitter exchange of blows over Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis resulted in Anwar being sacked in September 1998, arrested without trial and then charged with bestiality and corruption.

Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest Anwar’s treatment. When Anwar was tried with a black eye nine days after his arrest – for an assault by the then police chief while in custody – it quickly became a symbol of his new People’s Justice Party and its promise of reform. He was sentenced to six years in prison for sodomy in 1999 and a further nine years a year later for corruption – Anwar said it was a political conspiracy by Mahathir to end his career. His case drew international criticism, with Amnesty International describing Anwar as a “political prisoner”.

Anwar was released in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir resigned as prime minister after 22 years in power.

But Anwar was jailed a second time for sodomy in 2015 – in a case he said was aimed at dismantling his alliance, which was making gains against the UMNO-led government. Still, he didn’t give up.

From his prison cell, Anwar reconciled with Mahathir, who returned to politics amid anger over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving state investment fund 1MDB. Their reunion prompted historic polls in 2018 that saw the unthinkable fall of the UMNO-led alliance that had ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned shortly afterwards and would have succeeded Mahathir, but power struggles led to the collapse of her government after just 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a contentious government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc, which includes a staunch Islamic ally.

Nonetheless, the brief reign of Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan led to a significant uproar as UMNO leaders once in power were imprisoned or tried for bribery. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been jailed in a case related to the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current head of UMNO, and several party leaders are also fighting various corruption allegations.

Fighting on a multiracial platform, Anwar vowed to end racial and religious bigotry and pocket billions of dollars lost to entrenched corruption. On Thursday, after a long struggle, he finally succeeded in his persistent search.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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