Anwar Ibrahim, at the age of 75, has finally achieved his lifelong dream. In the last week of November, he was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Malaysia after decades of striving for the top job. In the parliamentary election held on November 19, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) multi-ethnic coalition he leads got the largest number of seats in Parliament, but for the first time in the country’s history since its independence in 1957, no party got an absolute majority.
The PH won 82 seats, leaving it well short of an absolute majority on its own. However, the decision of the former ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to support Anwar and the backing of the regional parties in the States of Sabah and Sarawak clinched the deal for him.
Under the country’s Constitution, the monarch has the prerogative to name the Prime Minister in a hung parliament. Under the country’s Constitution, the monarch has the prerogative to name the Prime Minister in a hung parliament. He must appoint a Prime Minster who he feels enjoys the confidence of the majority of the legislators. Sultan Ahmad Shah, the constitutional monarch, has had to use his discretionary powers twice since 2020 after the collapse of two coalition governments in quick succession.
For around five days after the results were announced on November 20 suspense prevailed as King Ahmad Shah, the constitutional monarch, kept all the parties waiting. However, he had no option but to ask Anwar to take the oath of office as Prime Minister. He had initially proposed that the PH coalition form a unity government with the Perikatan Nasional (PN), the conservative Malay Muslim dominated coalition led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, that won 73 seats.
Anwar told the media that he had told the King that he wanted to head a “strong government” that “is more inclusive in terms of race and religion”. The sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities of the country are well represented in the PH. Since independence, the Malay-dominated UMNO’s “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) policies have favoured the majority ethnic Malay Muslim community in the business, education, and employment sectors. Many Malaysian economists and Western financial institutions maintain that the policy is detrimental to the growth of the country. Anwar has promised a more even playing field for the minority ethnic groups while at the same time assuring Malaysians that he will not tinker with the Bumiputra policy.
“People say ‘long live the Malays’ but majority Malays are poor and face hardships. Only those on the top enjoy a good life. I want to be a Prime Minister for everyone,” Anwar had said in one of his campaign speeches. Anwar has also said that he wants more regional representation in government. Sabah and Sarawak, situated on the island of Borneo, had felt sidelined by previous governments in Kuala Lumpur.
After the split in the previous governing coalition led by Mahathir Mohammed in 2020, the King overlooked the claims of Anwar, who was then serving as Deputy Prime Minster, and appointed Muhyiddin as Prime Minister. After Muhyiddin was forced to bow out in 2021, the King appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the vice president of the UMNO, as Prime Minister despite Anwar again claiming a majority in Parliament. Yaakob’s decision to call a snap election backfired for his party.
The UMNO had won the State elections held earlier this year, which prompted Yaakob to call for an election well ahead of July 2023 when it was due. Voters blamed his government for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy. The electorate had also not forgiven the party for its long history of nepotism and corruption.
To get the requisite numbers to form the government, Anwar had to strike a deal with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by the UMNO. The BN had monopolised power in Malaysia since its independence and was ousted from the seat of government in 2018 by a coalition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and Anwar. Both of them along with Muhyiddin were former UMNO leaders.
UMNO’s worst performance ever
The performance of UMNO in this year’s election has been its worst ever. All the same, because of the exigencies of coalition politics, it has managed to stay relevant in Malaysian politics even now. The BN’s support is essential for the new government’s survival. It is evident that Anwar had to make significant compromises to keep the party on board. In a televised speech to the nation in the first week of December, Anwar announced the line-up of the Cabinet for the “unity government”. For the first time, the country will have two Deputy Prime Ministers.
One of them will be Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the UMNO. His appointment is bound to be controversial as there have been serious allegations of graft against him. He is currently on trial for over 41 charges of bribery, money laundering, and criminal breach of trust. Zahid has denied all the charges
Fadillah Yusof, the leader of the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), was named the second Deputy Prime Minister. The GPS, which until recently was an ally of the UMNO, won 23 seats. The Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, which has also joined the new coalition government, won six seats. Prime Minster Anwar will concurrently hold the Finance portfolio just as two former Prime Ministers, Mahathir and Najib Razak, did. However, as many Malaysian commentators have pointed out, it was when Najib held the Finance portfolio that the 1MDB multibillion-dollar scam occurred. 1MDB was a state fund created during Najib’s first term in office. More than $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund between 2009 and 2014. Najib was Prime Minster from 2009 to 2018 and is serving a long prison term for his role in the scandal.
Most observers of Malaysian politics predict that Anwar will have a tough time holding his coalition together. In the past five years, Malaysia has had three Prime Ministers. The PH, which won 100 seats in the 2018 election, lost 18 of its seats to the opposition this time. Anwar’s party had hoped to make significant gains because for the first time Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 20 were given the right to vote. As a result, five million more voters got added to the electoral rolls. Anwar’s initial dalliance with the conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) after he was forced out of office in 2020 rankled many voters, especially those from the minority ethnic groups.
The PAS is the only party that made significant gains in the November 2022 election. It seems to have attracted a significant section of the newly enfranchised youth vote through its savvy use of social media platforms such as Tik Tok. The PAS is part of the PN alliance. The alliance campaigned on a chauvinistic platform, claiming that a victory for the PH-led alliance would be a setback for the Malay majority and Bumiputra policies.
The PAS surprisingly got 49 of the 73 seats the PN alliance won. The party, which is sometimes called the “Malaysian Taliban”, was confined until recently to the rural eastern part of peninsular Malaysia but has now extended its influence to urban areas and States such as Penang.
The highest number of seats the PAS had bagged in a parliamentary election was 23 in 2018. Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS chief, had said that if his party won non-Muslims would play “a secondary role in government”. The decision of leading politicians such as Anwar and Muhyiddin to actively engage with it in the recent past is what facilitated its entry into the mainstream. The result is that today the PAS has emerged as the biggest Malay party in Parliament, eclipsing the UMNO. The PAS rejected Anwar’s invitation to join his “unity” government after initially sending positive signals.
A shock result in the election was the defeat of Mahathir, “the father of Malaysian development”. In the elections held four years ago, he won his parliamentary seat from the Langkawi constituency with a huge margin. The resort island has been his pocket borough for decades. It was a surprise to most Malaysians when the 97-year-old announced his intention to contest yet again. Mahathir had only returned to politics after the 1MDB scandal broke out. He led the campaign that led to the ouster of Najib, his former protégé, in the historic election of 2018.
Mahathir first announced his retirement from politics in 2003 while serving as Prime Minister. He has held the Prime Minister’s job twice, the most eventful being his long innings from 1981 to 2003. His second term, as head of a coalition government, lasted just two years, from 2018 to 2020. In the last election, Mahathir formed an alliance with the BN coalition led by Anwar. The two had reconciled after a bitter falling out. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar as Deputy Prime Minister after they disagreed over economic policy issues.
After this, Anwar was convicted on charges of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in jail. In 2014, Anwar was again sent to jail on sodomy charges. Most Malaysians believe that the charges were politically motivated. After Mahathir removed him from the Cabinet in 1998, Anwar started his “Reformasi” movement. “Reformasi” has been the clarion call of his electoral campaigns since then.
Anwar’s patch-up with Mahathir for the 2018 election only lasted for two years. As per the pre-election agreement, Mahathir was supposed to make way for Anwar to assume the Prime Minister’s job. But the grand old man of Malaysian politics refused to abide by the deal, which led to the eventual collapse of the coalition government. Mahathir formed a political alliance called Pejuang to contest the latest election and had expressed his willingness to assume the Prime Minster’s post yet again. The alliance drew a blank, with Mahathir losing his deposit.
Anwar will now have to deal with the harsh political and economic realities the country is currently enmeshed in. He will face a sharply polarised electorate. One of the first statements Anwar made after being named Prime Minister was to assure his countrymen that he would uphold constitutional guarantees regarding the Malay language, Islam, and Bumiputra policies. He also gave an assurance that no Malaysian would be marginalised under his administration.
The Malaysian economy is projected to grow by 4 to 5 per cent this year compared with 7 per cent last year. The current inflation rate of over 10 per cent has resulted in protests in the country against rising food prices.
- Anwar Ibrahim finally becomes PM at the age of 75.
- Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Anwar bags 82 seats in November election.
- Former ruling party UMNO and regional parties in Sabah and Sarawak back Anwar.
- Mahathir Mohammed loses in shock defeat.
- Anwar assures country that no Malaysian will be marginalised.
- Conservative PAS party makes significant gains in election.