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Anwar Ibrahim: from prisoner to prime minister-in-waiting

May 16, 2018

DW examines the comeback of the longtime opposition leader, who was released from prison today and whose spectacular fall from grace gave impetus to the opposition movement that now governs Malaysia.

Anwar Ibrahim
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Thian

Speaking at his first press conference as a free man, Anwar Ibrahim quipped, "The tagline would be 'from prison to palace,'" preempting just about every media organization's headline for yet another milestone in his checkered political career.    

He had just returned to his home in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, after meeting with the Malaysian king, Muhammad V, who had officially granted him a full pardon for a sodomy conviction from 2015 — a sentence he maintains was politically motivated.

The 70-year-old de facto leader of the People's Justice Party (PKR), part of the four-party Coalition of Hope, which now governs Malaysia, had been sentenced to five years in jail in 2015 on charges of sodomizing a former aide. Since ex-convicts are barred from running for political office for five years after their release — unless pardoned by the king — Anwar's political future was, by all appearances, doomed.

Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur
If there is one politician with more star power than Anwar, it has to be the tenacious 92-year-old MahathirImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Hoe

But Malaysian politics has never failed to surprise. Nail-biting twists, turns and machinations have had some Malaysians wryly remarking that even cult television series "Game of Thrones" now pales in comparison.

Anwar's release comes a week after his coalition drubbed the long-ruling Barisan Nasional at the polls on May 9. In his own words, this was partly due to the "indefatigable efforts" of former political mentor-turned-nemesis-turned-ally and current Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

What Anwar said during his first press conference after receiving royal pardon

-     On his time in prison: "When you are incarcerated, you realize the meaning and significance of freedom. No one should be allowed to undergo the same travesty. I happen to be known, I happen to be supported by many people. But we must stop this once and for all. It is our duty in Pakatan Harapan to end this."

-     On his "comeback": "I have never left the scene. I've been there but not physically. The last message from Mahathir was very clear, profound and appealing, I watched it and I was there, right behind him."

-     On immediate plans: "I'll be taking time off to give a series of talks in Harvard and Georgetown universities, and a few Muslim countries. I think I have a small contribution to make to show that the voice of reason and moderation in Islam is paramount. That Muslims can also be counted upon to ensure that there's freedom and justice for all citizens in their country."

-     On possible criminal action against Najib Razak: "I don't want the issue of Anwar being incarcerated to be an issue made against him. But the issue of injustice towards the people, crimes committed against the people, the endemic corruption that has become the culture in this country — that he has to answer. But when it comes to my welfare, I have forgiven. I want to move on. I have no malice towards Najib."

-     On working with Mahathir again: "Many people have asked, 'Why do you work with that man?' They became very cynical. My interest now is the welfare of the nation. He has been indefatigable in his efforts to secure my release and his support for the reform agenda. Why would I harbor any malice towards him?"

Rise and fall of a political maverick

Anwar's political career began in the late 1960s at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, where he was an outspoken student leader who founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), and served as its president until 1982.

A gifted orator, he spoke out against the plight of the rural populace, for which he was held for 20 months under a draconian security law. He was especially critical of the then ruling Barisan Nasional (or National Front) coalition and its most powerful component, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Yet, in a surprise about-turn, he accepted an invitation from then Prime Minister Mahathir to join UMNO and his government in 1982. His career trajectory steadily rose as he moved from the ministries of culture, youth and sports (1983), and agriculture (1984) to head the more high-profile education (1986–91) and finance (1991–98) ministries, besides being deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998.

His stewardship of the finance ministry saw steady economic growth of 9 percent over several years, with the country attracting much foreign investment. This, coupled with his stance on moderate Islam, earned him broad respect and coverage at home and abroad; Newsweek named him "Asian of The Year" in 1998.

Given the seemingly seamless working relationship he'd had with Mahathir, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would eventually succeed him as prime minister one day. Then, the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, and the country's and Anwar's fortunes changed.

Read more: Malaysia election: People were 'disgusted with government's corruption'

Rallying for reform

He spoke out against corruption and nepotism within UMNO, and locked horns with Mahathir over the implementation of economic recovery measures that led to his widely-criticized sacking in September 1998. The popular Anwar led public protests against Mahathir, where his rallying call of "reformasi" (reform) gave birth to a new movement, and eventually a reinforced opposition. He was arrested and charged with sodomy and corruption, which he insisted was engineered by Mahathir who saw him as a political threat.

He was found guilty and slapped with concurrent jail terms for corruption and committing sodomy with his wife's driver, sparking more mass protests. The Malaysian Supreme Court overturned his sodomy conviction in late 2004.

A comeback and yet another setback

He took some time off after his release but returned to galvanize the opposition (then consisting of three parties with disparate ideologies). Buoyed by rising public discontent with the endemic corruption within UMNO and the government's highhandedness with dissenters, they made significant dents in BN's long hold on power in Malaysia.

Although the opposition won the popular vote in 2013, they didn't garner enough seats to form the government. This didn't go unnoticed by then Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government apparatus either.

Jailed politician could become PM

As Anwar was preparing to run in a state election in 2014 that he looked likely to win, his sodomy acquittal from a decade earlier was overturned, and he was sent back to jail.

This temporarily threw a spanner in the works for the opposition alliance. However, the 1MDB scandal in 2015, rising living costs and a government impervious to the people's anger and discontent, eventually drew out a most unexpected champion: the long-retired Mahathir.

A new dawn

If there is one politician with more star power than Anwar, it has to be the tenacious 92-year-old Mahathir. Disgusted by his scandal-tainted former protégé Najib, he quit UMNO, formed a new party, joined forces with opposition groups, reconciled with Anwar and promised to get him a full pardon if the people voted him in to lead the country again.

And the people did. And true to his word, a week after that astounding victory which many Malaysians are still trying to digest, the former foes-turned-collaborators shook hands at the royal palace today where Anwar met with the king.

"Now there's a dawn for Malaysia and I must thank the entire spectrum of Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, who stood by the principles of democracy and freedom. They demand change and it is our duty now to ensure that this mandate given to Pakatan Harapan is honored," he said to a packed press conference.

Unsurprisingly, the question of when he'd become prime minister came up. Having spent 20 years in the political wilderness, he appears to be in no hurry to assume the mantle of power.

"I will give him (Mahathir) all the support necessary to allow him to ensure that the agenda for reform is effectively carried out. I do not want to be seen to be hasty or to demand for an immediate time frame."

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture