Anwar Ibrahim has been sworn in as the prime minister of Malaysia as five days of post-election deadlock were broken by a moment his supporters say has been two decades in the making.
The 75-year-old rose from student activist to deputy prime minister in the 1990s, only to be convicted of sodomy before returning to parliament as opposition leader.
His tenure could prove just as choppy amid soaring inflation, slowing growth and the economic fallout of the pandemic. His rival, the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has already challenged him to prove his majority in parliament.
“Anwar is so patient, so calm and so collected,” said Tammy Chan, 35, a public relations executive who was celebrating the result in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. “He won the hearts of people like that, at least my heart.”
Anwar’s progressive coalition edged Muhyiddin’s mostly conservative ethnic-Malay, Muslim alliance, in a country where race and religion remain divisive issues. For decades, Anwar has called for inclusiveness and an overhaul of the political system in the multi-ethnic country. About 70% of the population of nearly 33 million comprises ethnic Malays, who are mainly Muslim, and Indigenous groups with ethnic Chinese and Indians account for the rest.
“At a time when we talk about diversity, the opposition is still playing the race card, which is outdated and not workable any more, not for the urban dwellers,” said Chan, who acknowledged support for Muhyiddin among rural, ethnic Malay, many of whom fear they may lose their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar.
Anwar has time and again been denied the premiership despite getting within striking distance a number of times over the years: he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and the official prime minister-in-waiting in 2018.
In between, he spent nearly a decade in jail on sodomy and corruption charges which he says were politically motivated and aimed at ending his career.
With 82 parliamentary seats, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, came out on top in Saturday’s election, but was short of the 112 seats needed for a majority. The former prime minister Muhyiddin’s Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, won 73 seats.
The alliance led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which has 30 seats, held the balance of power. Umno’s secretary-general, Ahmad Maslan, said on Thursday that the party’s highest-decision making body had decided to support a unity government that is not led by Muhyiddin’s camp and the party would accept any unity government or any other form of government decided by the king.
With the support of all 30 lawmakers in the Umno alliance, Anwar was able to secure a majority. He is the fourth prime minister in as many years.
Rashaad Ali, a political analyst, said the coalition government – likely to include “a conservative Malay party and a predominantly Chinese party” – would help temper ethnic tensions stirred during the election.
Anwar told Reuters in an interview before the election he would seek “to emphasise governance and anti-corruption, and rid this country of racism and religious bigotry”. He called for the removal of policies favouring Malays and an end to a patronage system that had kept Malaysia’s longest ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, in power.
Ahead of Anwar’s appointment, police had told social media users to refrain from “provocative” posts and said they were setting up 24-hour checkpoints on roads throughout Malaysia to ensure public peace and safety.
Now, said Ali, expectations are of a “clean, progressive and lean government”.
“It becomes their primary responsibility to sort out the polarisation of identity politics,” he said. “But until they announce which parties and coalitions exactly are supporting his government the question of a challenge will remain.”