Anwar Ibrahim has been sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister after the king intervened to end chaotic post-election jockeying and bring historic political change to the south-east Asian nation.
Anwar’s rise follows a period of more than two decades in opposition and a series of scandals that battered his reputation and led to him being jailed on sodomy charges and barred from politics.
The reformist leader was sworn in on Thursday evening after five days of uncertainty that followed Saturday’s general election, which resulted in an unprecedented hung parliament.
Anwar is a one-time protégé of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, who lost his parliamentary seat on Saturday. He takes the reins of a country riven with political divisions and struggling with a fragile pandemic-battered economy.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah appointed Anwar after meeting candidates for prime minister and newly elected members of parliament this week.
Both Anwar, who leads the Alliance of Hope, and his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin of the National Alliance, had been battling to build a coalition that could command the support of parliament. Muhyiddin was on Thursday still insisting he had a majority.
The Alliance of Hope won the most seats in Saturday’s election, but fell short of the 112 needed for a majority, as did the second-placed National Alliance.
The former governing National Front, which includes the United Malays National Organisation, trailed both with its worst-ever electoral performance. It was an emphatic rejection by voters of a coalition that had dominated Malaysia’s politics since independence in 1957.
UMNO has been plagued by controversy in recent years, most notably a financial scandal linked to 1MDB, the state investment fund founded by former prime minister Najib Razak. Najib in August lost a final bid to overturn his 12-year prison sentence for money laundering in connection with the scandal.
Harris Zainul, a senior analyst for the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said that compared with other party leaders, Anwar was “as reformist as it gets”.
“But we don’t know size of his majority, and how strong the new coalition is,” Zainul said.
He said Anwar’s focus would be on the economy and tackling inflation, as well as reforms that would be relatively easy to get through parliament. These could include changing the position of attorney-general to separate its role as the government’s legal adviser from that of head of the prosecution service.
The current tumult of Malaysian politics, known for big personalities and deep rivalries, began in 2020 when Mahathir suddenly resigned as prime minister due to coalition infighting.
Mahathir had promised when he became prime minister for a second time in 2018 that he would hand over power to Anwar — a protégé-turned-foe-turned-ally — within one to two years. Instead he stepped down at the start of the pandemic and asked the king to dissolve cabinet, thwarting Anwar’s ascension.
In 1998, Anwar, then Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and heir apparent, was arrested and beaten by the country’s police chief, convicted of sodomy and corruption and placed in solitary confinement. The sodomy charge was eventually overturned, but the controversy sidelined Anwar from politics for about a decade. He was jailed again for sodomy in 2015, but three years later was pardoned.
Anwar retained strong support throughout his troubles, particularly among urban residents and the many people who believed he had been politically persecuted.