Anwar takes his chance

As I noted in a brief update last week, the aftermath of Malaysia’s general election produced a surprise with the appointment of Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister, despite what looked like a difficult parliamentary position.

With 82 of the 222 seats in parliament, Anwar’s Alliance of Hope was well short of a majority. The two main forces opposed to him – the National Alliance with 73 seats and the National Front with 30 – seemed better placed to attract the uncommitted members and it looked as if they would co-operate to keep him out.

But in negotiations arranged by the king, Sultan Abdullah, it became clear that the National Front would not back the National Alliance leader, Muhyiddin Yassin, as prime minister and preferred to go into opposition. Abdullah decided that Anwar was the best bet, and last Thursday he was sworn in as prime minister on a promise to form a broad-based unity government.

As a constitutional monarch, Abdullah’s role is supposed to be mostly ceremonial, but with the fractured party system of recent years he has been forced to take a more active role. It was he who appointed Muhyiddin as prime minister back in March 2020, after the Alliance of Hope government had collapsed due to the treachery of Mahathir Mohamad. Muhyiddin and the National Front worked together for a while until the latter claimed the prime ministership for itself, only to fare badly in the inevitable early election.

The bad blood between the National Alliance and National Front has now given Anwar his chance. He says he will hold a vote of confidence when parliament assembles in three weeks, on 19 December, although there is no constitutional requirement to do so. That will make the balance of forces clearer: at this stage he appears to have the support of the National Front and of the alliances of parties from Sarawak and Sabah in eastern Malaysia, the GPS and GRS, with 23 and six seats respectively.

As to Anwar himself and the significance of his belated rise to the top job, I can’t do better than recommend Mark Baker’s account at Inside Story. It’s an inspirational tale, and Baker tells it very well. Over 25 years, since his relationship with Mahathir first broke down in 1997, Anwar has undergone ordeals that would have have driven most people to retirement or worse; he has not only survived, but has ultimately prevailed.

Let’s hope it may also mark the success of his ambition (in Baker’s words) “to build a cleaner, fairer and more racially egalitarian Malaysia.”

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