Anwar Ibrahim back in Malaysian politics

“I don’t intend to serve in any position (in the Cabinet) and I am happy with this position,” former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim asserted while talking to the media after being sworn in as a Member of Parliament following his landslide victory in a by-election last week. If taken on the face value, this sounds quite reassuring, though for the time being, for the supporters of the ruling alliance in Malaysia who have been quite anxious over the simmering rumours about the possible power struggle between Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad. It is too early to predict about the contours of the working relationship between the two giants of Malaysian politics, but one thing is certain that both will have to show a lot of compromises and concessions towards each other just to keep the ruling alliance intact. Anwar required to enter into the parliament as a member to legitimize his “agreed ascension” to the premiership, which 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has indicated would be within two years. Last year, in a desperate bid to eject then Prime Minister Najib Razik in the general election held in May this year, the two agreed to join hands in the form of Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Anwar’s return to the Parliament and active politics has been quite dramatic and sensational. Mahathir Mohamad, who spearheaded the electoral success of four-party Alliance of Hope, formally facilitated a full pardon from King Muhammad V in May for Anwar Ibrahim and his eventual release from the jail in May as a part of pre-election deal with Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR). The fact is that, in 1999, when Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption, most of the political commentators had started talking about demise of his political career. Before being arbitrarily removed from his office in 1998 amid allegations of sodomy and corruption, Anwar Ibrahim was indubitably the second most powerful person in Malaysia as deputy and heir-apparent of Prime Minister s Mahathir Mohamad between 1982 and 2003. Anwar has always insisted that those charges were fabricated by Mahathir to clip his political ambitions. After winning a court appeal, Anwar was released in 2004 and resumed his political career by grabbing a seat in the Parliament through a by-election in 2008. However, this time again, he had to relinquish his seat after he found himself back in jail for five years in 2015 after losing an appeal on a sodomy conviction. This time he accused that Najib was behind his conviction.

The unlikely alliance of Mahathir and Anwar has been one of the many unusual aspects of the last election that propelled the 92-year-old Mahathir to become the prime minister again. When Mahathir was prime minister the first time round, Anwar was his protégé and deputy, tipped for the top job until Mahathir thought he was growing out of his boots and becoming too powerful. Mahathir Mohamad is generally labelled, and rightly so, as the main architect of new and modern Malaysia. He spearheaded the transition of Malaysia from an under developed country to a developing nation that became regional leader in a short time. When Mahathir left the political arena in 2002 and sought retirement from active politics, Malaysia was moving in the right direction with regard to its economic strategic plan. However, things started heating up when Najib Razak took over charge as Prime Minster in 2009 and corruption charges against him and his team started making rounds in the media - particularly after the surfacing of 1MDB scandal in 2015. The blatant and chronic corruption among the ruling elite was the prime reason that coerced Mahathir to return back to politics after 15 years. The announcement of his candidacy for the job of prime minister was perhaps the most jolting one. Mahathir took a stand once again, this time not through a hand-picked proxy – as in the past – but by entering the arena himself.

Now that Anwar Ibrahim has sworn in as the member parliament, the optimistic version of the story goes like this: Mahathir’s return to power will herald the beginning of new phase where justice will be executed and corrupt officials will be subjected to the rigorous accountability, then Mahathir will be replaced by Anwar within two years, fulfilling the pre-poll accord between the two. Then Anwar, being a highly competent and reformist statesman, will steer Malaysia towards the economic revival. But pragmatically speaking, things will not be as rosy as being seen by some quarters. The very first question is about the mutual relationship between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has had a topsy-turvy relationship with his protégé-turned-rival-turned-ally, despite being coalition partner with Anwar, has to make a lot of changes in his leadership style to keep the coalition intact. His dictatorial instinct may hamper the smooth running of the government.

Yes, Mahathir led-coalition Pakatan Harapan has won 113 seats in the 222-seat parliament, Dewan Rakyat, but majority seats (48) are won by Anwar’s PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) won 42, and the Parti Amanah Negara of new Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu won 11, while Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) has captured just 12 seats. So, despite being the head of coalition, Mahathir has very weak numerical strength in the parliament. Mahathir’s position is no more as strong as in the past. He will have to make a lot of changes in his working style in handling the government affairs, while keeping a smooth working relationship with Anwar, who must have been eager to take the charge of affairs. “I don’t think that’s an issue as far as I am concerned. Let him have the space and latitude to continue unaffected by the constraints of time and pressure,” Anwar said recently when asked whether Mahathir had indicated to him when he would hand over the reins of power. This is certainly a very positive approach by Anwar at this stage, but it is not sufficient to muffle the public prattles that both men still carry bitterness in their sleeves.


n             The writer is a freelance columnist.

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