He has had to wait nearly a quarter century, but Anwar Ibrahim finally became Prime Minister of Malaysia at 5pm on Thursday afternoon when he was sworn in by the country’s king. Viewed as a human rights poster child in the West due to his long imprisonment, and with suspicion by many others because of his association with Muslim Brotherhood figures, in 1998 Mr Anwar was then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s anointed successor – until he was dismissed by Dr Mahathir and then jailed.
In 2013, his opposition alliance gained the popular vote, but not a majority in parliament. After the 2018 election, which Mr Anwar’s liberal-leaning Pakatan Harapan alliance won, defeating the more conservative Barisan Nasional coalition for the first time ever, Mr Anwar was due to succeed Dr Mahathir again. But it became clear that the latter had no intention of letting Mr Anwar take over, ever, and the government fell due to the machinations of Dr Mahathir and his successor as prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.
On Sunday morning, after Malaysia’s latest general election, it still wasn’t clear if Mr Anwar would seize the prize at last. Pakatan had 82 out of the 222 seats in parliament – more than anyone else, but not a majority. The multiracial, multireligious country had never had a hung parliament before, and after the past four years, during which Malaysia had three different governments, it became clear that the King in Malaysia’s rotational monarchy, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, whose task it was to name a new prime minister, was determined to ensure the next administration would be stable and lasting. No minority administration would be entertained.
Over the next five days, Malaysians checked their smartphones constantly to check which combination of parties looked likely to pass the magic 112 needed to form a majority. For the results had been unexpected. At the start of the election period, Barisan was so confident of winning outright that all the talk was about whether the incumbent prime minister, Ismail Sabri, would remain in place, or if Zahid Hamidi, president of the Barisan’s mainstay, Malay-only party, Umno, would force him out. With former prime minister Najib Razak, who helped Barisan barnstorm two state-level victories in the previous 12 months, in jail, Barisan’s campaign was lacklustre, and ended up producing their worst-ever result, with only 30 seats.
It was also a bad night for Dr Mahathir, who came a humiliating fourth in his Langkawi seat and lost his deposit; for former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, fondly known as “the best prime minister Malaysia never had”, who was out of the seat he had held since 1974; for Mr Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, who lost a seat that had been in the family since 1982; and for former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin, regarded by many – not least himself – as a future prime minister, who failed to win an opposition stronghold he’d been parachuted into by a leader said to be jealous of his popularity, Umno’s Zahid.
It wasn’t actually the best night for Mr Anwar’s Pakatan, either, as it was down eight seats. The real winner was the third coalition dominating peninsular Malaysia, Perikatan Nasional, helmed by Mr Muhyiddin, who had caused the Pakatan government to fall in 2020 when he led his Umno splinter party, Bersatu, into a new alliance with Barisan. Their 73 seats was a significant increase on the 39 they’d had before.
There may not appear to be anything especially alarming about a bloc led by a former prime minister, who’d also been deputy prime minister to Najib from 2009-16, when Mr Muhyiddin left Umno. Behind the reassuring front of “abah” – father – as Mr Muhyiddin liked to be known, however, was the fact that the other party in Perikatan is Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS. This religious party seems to have done very well with younger Malay voters. Mr Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah, for instance, lost to a 39-year-old religious teacher who is popular on TikTok. But PAS, whose numbers increased from 18 to 49, has a hardline Islamist ideology. The fact that its leader’s son congratulated the Taliban on their “victory” when they retook power in Afghanistan last year is all you need to know.
On Sunday, former law minister Zaid Ibrahim urged Pakatan and Barisan to think the unthinkable, and come together to stop “religious extremism” and “almost fascist kind of thinking”. “We cannot allow this country to be fundamentally changed forever,” as a government dominated by PAS would do, he said.
For decades their leaders had fought, often viciously. Barisan had always insisted there could be “no Anwar, no DAP” – a reference to a Chinese party that has long been a mainstay of Mr Anwar’s coalition. Pakatan declared Barisan to be irredeemably corrupt and racist. But the election changed everything. Compared to the Malay-Muslim ethno-religious hardcore nationalism of PAS-majority Perikatan, wrote Malaysian editor Terence Fernandez: “Suddenly, Umno is seen as the liberal Malay party that makes the effort to be inclusive of non-Malays and embraces the social fabric of the nation.”
By Monday morning, Mr Anwar was meeting Umno president Zahid, to whom he has been personally if not politically close for more than 25 years, and other Barisan leaders. There was a plan. Mr Anwar was to be PM, Umno deputy president Mat Hassan, deputy PM, and Shafie Apdal, leader of a Sabah state-based party, deputy PM II – fulfilling a promise that Malaysia’s Borneo states would have a higher representation at the top of government.
There have been many to-ings and fro-ings in the days since, with Mr Muhyiddin declaring he had the numbers to form a government; the King calling his bluff, and asking him to form a unity government with Mr Anwar’s Pakatan, which he refused to do; a couple of Umno MPs, including outgoing prime minister Ismail Sabri, saying they would rather be expelled from the party than ally with Pakatan; and a meeting on Thursday morning of the country’s nine hereditary rulers to discuss the choice of prime minister.
In the end, however, the King’s wise call for a unity government has prevailed. Pakatan, Barisan, and the main parties from the Borneo states have a clear majority. Although Barisan did terribly in the election, the moderate voices in Umno will be empowered out of necessity by working with the reformist Pakatan. The increasing number of Malaysians I have heard asking why Umno – which is really the “indispensable party” for any stable government – couldn’t work with Pakatan now find their dream unexpectedly coming true. And Mr Anwar at last has his chance. Even those who have not been his supporters in the past must hope that he fulfils his promise. If it can keep together, this coalition could truly be a new dawn, and a new “harapan” – hope – for Malaysia.