Anwar Ibrahim hasn’t lost his electoral shine. The father of Malaysia’s political reform movement clinched a landslide victory in a make-or-break by-election for the seaside constituency of Port Dickson on October 13, a poll seen as the first stepping stone on his path to assuming the role of prime minister.
The twice-jailed former opposition leader is slated to take the reins when incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad steps down in two years, though a clear timetable for the much-discussed transition has yet to be confirmed. Anwar, 71, had to first be elected as a parliamentarian as a prerequisite for assuming the top job, a criterion he has now fulfilled.
Contesting as the Pakatan Harapan government’s candidate, the veteran politician amassed a total of 31,016 votes, according to the Election Commission, trouncing runner-up Mohd Nazari Mokhtar, a candidate fielded by the Islamist opposition party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) who pulled in 7,456 votes.
Turnout for the by-election hit 58.3%, just shy of the 60% target set by Anwar’s campaign. The veteran politician’s margin of victory – 23,560 votes – is, however, considerably higher than Harapan’s former parliamentarian Danyal Balagopal Abdullah’s 17,710 majority during May’s general election, when turnout hit 83.6%.
Despite a lower turnout, seven out of 32 polling districts in the Port Dickson ward saw an increase in votes for Harapan since the May 9 general election. Those increases all occurred in ethnic Malay-majority polling districts, usually strongholds for PAS or the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which led the ousted former ruling coalition.
A motley crew of seven contenders contested the by-election, including Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a former aide to Anwar who infamously alleged he had been sodomized by his then-boss in 2008, leading to the iconic politician’s persecution and jailing on sodomy charges for a second time in 2014. Saiful polled dead last, securing just 82 ballots.
Anwar has always refuted past sodomy charges, which are widely regarded as being politically motivated. He was released from prison after serving three years of a five-year sentence following Harapan’s general election victory in May and received a full royal pardon from Malaysia’s constitutional monarch that enabled his re-entry into politics.
The iconic politician is expected to be sworn in as a member of Parliament on Monday (October 15) when the Lower House convenes for its final session of the year. Reports indicate that the newly-elected parliamentarian will participate in a debate regarding the Harapan government’s inaugural budget for 2019, set to be announced on November 2.
Prior to securing his parliamentary seat, Anwar spoke of playing a “check-and-balance” role “for the benefit of the people” by looking into institutional reforms, including a review of affirmative action policies. He had pledged to pursue parliamentary reforms within six months and has called for improvements to be made on government procurement processes, long a source of slippage and corruption under the previous UMNO government.
At a speech delivered last week to a conference organized by Malaysia’s finance ministry, Anwar identified the private sector as being key to furthering economic growth and called for needs-based, rather than race-based, affirmative action policies. He also spoke of enhancing already-robust trade relationships with China and India.
Some are concerned that Anwar’s return to active politics could herald instability within his political party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), where a glaringly public tussle for the position of deputy president is now underway in the midst of internal elections. Others, however, are already considering what an Anwar premiership might look like.
“Anwar has built up popularity among Malaysians during his time as part of the opposition, and that still holds true. But the key test will be how they respond to him when he takes on more responsibilities in government and has to make the tradeoffs that come with governing,” says Prashanth Parameswaran, a Washington-based editor for The Diplomat.
“His time in the opposition has seen him advocate for a more inclusive Malaysia, and his views on domestic politics are well-known. But it remains to be seen if Anwar can indeed stay true to that vision when he is in government,” he says, adding that he will have to meet those expectations while fending off challenges from other political parties.
It remains to be seen what Malaysia’s foreign policy would look like under Anwar’s leadership. “Much less is known about his views on foreign policy than on domestic policy,” says Prashanth. “The ultimate question is whether he is popular enough to win a general election on his own if he stands for prime minister in the next general election in 2023.”
Wong Chin-Huat, a political scientist at the local Penang Institute think-tank, believes Anwar would be expected to pursue “nation-building” policies once at the helm, building on institutional reforms delivered under the incumbent Mahathir government. That would include promoting inclusivity and reconciliation across racial and religious lines.
“Anwar clearly has the intellect and charisma to complete this task, but we haven’t heard much about his policies,” says Wong. “Some fear Anwar will lean toward the religious conservatives and nationalists. While he would have to protect his Islamist credentials, this is unlikely to be his full game.”
The veteran politician’s new role as government backbencher charting parliamentary reforms could be “problematic” because Anwar could run the risk of his criticisms being interpreted as “gestures to force Mahathir into retirement,” Wong suggests, cautioning that he must “be part of the government, not a government critic.”
Despite the seemingly cordial ties between Mahathir and Anwar, some point to Mahathir’s less than effusive remarks as a sign he may still have lingering doubts about his one-time protégé. “Mahathir has had many opportunities to fully embrace his presumptive successor,” says veteran Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius.
“That he has always declined to do so is indication enough that he for one is not particularly thrilled at the prospect,” he believes. In a recent appearance on BBC’s HARDtalk television program, the premier appeared “dismissive” of Anwar’s “carefully crafted narrative of reconciliation between the two,” Ignatius suggests.
During that television interview, Mahathir denied that he ever tendered a formal apology to Anwar for his 1998 sacking and subsequent imprisonment, which the latter claimed to have received, suggesting such claims were merely Anwar’s “opinion.” He affirmed that Anwar would succeed him with the caveat, “if that is what the nation wants.”
“That’s a big ‘if’ and leaves a lot of room for maneuver,” says the veteran diplomat, who maintains Mahathir has yet to unequivocally walk back his decades-old comment that Anwar is “morally unfit” to be prime minister. “In any case, two to three years is a long time in politics and anything can happen.”
“As incumbent, Mahathir has the upper hand and the power of patronage,” Ignatius says. “Anwar, as the man on the outside trying to come in, has a much harder task. He has to navigate the minefield of Malay politics, keep from antagonizing the non-Malays and all while going head to head with the most adroit Malaysian politician of all time.”