November 26, 2022

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday, capping a three-decade political journey from a protege of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader, a prisoner convicted of sodomy and opposition leader.

His appointment ends five days of unprecedented post-election crisis but could herald fresh instability with his rival, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is challenging him to prove his majority in parliament.

Both men failed to win a majority in Saturday’s elections, but the constitutional monarch, King Al-Sultan Abdullah, appointed Anwar after speaking to several lawmakers.

Anwar takes the helm at a challenging time: the economy is slowing and the country is divided after a tight election that pitted Anwar’s progressive coalition against Muhyiddin’s mostly conservative ethnic-Malay Muslim alliance.

Markets rose at the end of the political impasse. The ringgit currency posted its best day in two weeks and shares rose 3%.

Marc Lourdes covered the 2018 Malaysian elections for CNN

Anwar, 75, has been consistently denied the post of prime minister despite coming within striking distance over the years: he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and official prime minister-on-hold in 2018.

In between, he spent almost a decade in prison on sodomy and corruption charges, which he says were politically motivated charges aimed at ending his career.

Election uncertainty threatened to prolong political instability in the Southeast Asian country, which has had three prime ministers in as many years, and risks delaying policy decisions needed to spur economic recovery.

Malaysia’s Anwar becomes prime minister, ending decades of waiting

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (right) appointed Anwar (left) after consultation with lawmakers.

Anwar’s supporters expressed hope that his government would prevent a return to historic tensions between the ethnic Malay Muslim majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

“All we want is moderation for Malaysia, and Anwar stands for that,” said a communications manager in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to be identified by her Tang surname.

“We cannot have a country divided by race and religion because that will set us back another 10 years.”

Anwar told Reuters in a pre-election interview that if he was appointed prime minister he would try to “emphasize governance and anti-corruption and rid this country of racism and religious bigotry.”

His coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional Block won 73. They needed 112 – a simple majority – to form a government.

The long-ruling Barisan bloc won just 30 seats – the worst election result for a coalition that had dominated politics since independence in 1957.

Barisan said Thursday it would not support a government led by Muhyiddin, although there was no reference to Anwar.

Muhyiddin, after Anwar’s appointment, asked Anwar to prove his majority in Parliament.

Anwar is tasked with stabilizing rising inflation following the coronavirus pandemic and curbing ethnic tensions.

Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Islamist party PAS, whose electoral gains have raised concern among members of the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities, most of whom are of other faiths.

Authorities warned of a rise in ethnic tensions on social media after the weekend’s vote, and short-video platform TikTok said it was on high alert for content violating its guidelines.

Social media users have reported numerous TikTok posts since the election that mentioned a May 13, 1969 riot in the capital Kuala Lumpur that killed about 200 people, days after opposition parties backed by ethnic Chinese voters entered an election.

Police urged social media users to refrain from “provocative” posts and said they would set up 24-hour checkpoints on roads across the country to ensure public peace and safety.

The decision on prime minister fell to King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah after both Anwar and Muhyiddin missed his Tuesday afternoon deadline to put together a ruling alliance.

The constitutional monarch plays a largely ceremonial role, but can appoint a prime minister who he believes will have a majority in parliament.

Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy in which kings are chosen in turn from the royal families of nine states to rule for five-year terms.

As premier, Anwar must cope with rising inflation and slowing growth as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, while calming ethnic tensions.

The most immediate issue will be next year’s budget, which was presented before the election but has yet to be approved.

Anwar also needs to negotiate deals with lawmakers from other blocs to ensure he retains majority support in Parliament.

“Anwar is appointed at a critical juncture in Malaysian history, where politics is at its most fractured, recovering from a depressed economy and bitter memories of Covid,” said James Chai, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Always regarded as the man who could unite all warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar emerged at a time of division.”