Anwar Ibrahim has been named Malaysia’s new prime minister, making an incredible comeback for a man who was suddenly fired and imprisoned after first taking the job during the boom years of the 1990s.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the most seats in the weekend’s elections, but no party or coalition won the 112-seat parliamentary majority required to form a government.
The PH and the rival conservative Malay-Muslim Pelicatan Nacional (PN) coalition under former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who holds the second most seats, have both begun talks to form a government, with the state of Sabah in Borneo and won a small coalition government in Sarawak. So did Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that ruled Malaysia for almost 60 years before suffering a historic defeat in the last election in 2018.
King Sultan Abdullah King Sultan Ahmad Shah met with Anwar and Muhyiddin, as well as newly elected MPs, for their views on who should lead the new government, as neither had been able to make a breakthrough. .
After Thursday’s royal meeting, the king announced that Anwar would become prime minister after gaining the support of a majority of Malaysia’s 222 members of parliament.
There are “no absolute winners and no absolute losers,” he said in the statement, urging all politicians to work together for the benefit of the country.
King Sultan Abdullah said the 75-year-old opposition leader would be sworn in at a ceremony at the palace at 5pm (09:00 GMT).
“It is a long time coming for Anwar,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, the deputy managing director at consultancy BGA Malaysia, told Al Jazeera. “All his struggles and campaigns for reform are now vindicated.”
Anwar Ibrahim started his political career as a student activist, founding the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, known by its Malay acronym ABIM, in 1971 and later leading protests against rural poverty and on other socioeconomic causes.
His activism caught the eye of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who persuaded him to join the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in BN, which had ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
Anwar rose rapidly through the ranks to become finance minister and deputy prime minister, earning a reputation as a charismatic, ambitious and reform-minded politician.
But as the Asian financial crisis deepened, Mahathir turned on the man he had chosen as his successor.
In September 1998, Anwar was sacked and accused of corruption and sodomy, a crime in Malaysia.
Thousands took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Anwar, who maintained the charges were politically motivated, was arrested.
His trial veered from the shocking – a black eye later confirmed to be inflicted by the then-police chief while Anwar was in custody – to the absurd – a stained mattress hauled into court as evidence.
After being convicted, Anwar was released in 2004 and faced a second homosexuality trial as the reform movement that began with his ouster in 1998 gained momentum.
In total, Anwar spent about 10 years in prison before finally being pardoned and released in 2018.
By then he had again joined forces with Mahathir under the banner of PH to ensure that BN was punished in the ballot box of a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB. .
But Anwar’s path to the top was once again blocked when Mahathir wavered in his promise to hand over power and the PH government collapsed amid infighting and pressure from Malay-Muslim conservatives.
“Reformasi” or reform chants continued to reverberate around PH rallies in the campaign leading up to Saturday’s elections.
Faced with a possible economic slowdown, Anwar told supporters that his government would also reduce the size of the cabinet, cutting salaries and benefits for ministers.
Still, moves toward reform may be hampered by more conservative factions.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country where most people are Malay Muslims, but there are significant Chinese, Indian and Indigenous communities.
The previous PH government was partially overturned by a reform agenda that Malay nationalists feared would undermine the privileges granted to them under the constitution.
Such pressure could also affect the new government, given surges in support for Malaysia’s religiously conservative Muslim political party, the PAS.
He is also PN’s dominant player.
Wong Chin Phat, a political expert and professor at Sunway University in suburban Kuala Lumpur, says Anwar needs to “get politics right” to get the economy back on its feet.
“He needs to be prime minister for 100% of the Malaysian people, not just 38% of PH voters and 22% of BN voters,” Wong told Al Jazeera. “He especially needs to ensure that his 30% of voters who support PN are heard.”
Official statistics for Saturday’s election showed PH winning 5.81 million votes, PN 4.67 million and BN 3.43 million, showing a record number of Malaysians voting.
Electoral rolls were expanded after a constitutional amendment to give 18-year-olds the right to vote and automatic voter registration, further increasing uncertainty over outcomes.