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From prisoner to prime minister, Malaysian Anwar has come a long way to the top

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — More than two decades after his dramatic ousting from government and imprisonment, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim finally has his day.

Anwar was named Malaysia’s 10th prime minister by the country’s king and was sworn in on Thursday, edging out a Malaysian nationalist leader to land the top job after a divisive general election led to a hung parliament.

Becoming prime minister caps the rollercoaster political journey of Anwar, a former deputy prime minister whose dismissal and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that has become a major political force. It is a second victory for his reformist bloc, which won the 2018 election but lost power after 22 months due to a power struggle that has led to continued political unrest.

Last Saturday’s election, which was supposed to end the instability that had led to three prime ministers since 2018, instead produced further uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate. Anwar’s multi-ethnic Hope Alliance leads with 82 seats, short of the 112 needed for a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance won 73 seats, with its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party becoming the largest single party with 49 seats.

Anwar emerged victorious after smaller blocs agreed to back him to form a unity government. Still, he faces an arduous task to bridge the racial divisions that have deepened after Saturday’s poll and revive an economy struggling with rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point. Malays make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include significant Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.

“Anwar’s political struggle is of a level comparable to that of Nelson Mandela (of South Africa), as both of them went through a lot of persecution in the process of democratizing their country,” said Ei Sun Oh of Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “It is hoped that with Anwar in charge, Malaysia could return to a more open and inclusive society and economy which would hopefully restore its prestige on the world stage.”

Anwar, 75, has been in power twice.

An incendiary youth leader, Anwar founded an Islamic youth movement before being recruited into the then-ruling United Malay National Organization. He enjoyed a meteoric rise to become Deputy Prime Minister-Finance Minister in the 1990s. He was groomed to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but a bitter fallout on Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis saw Anwar sacked in September 1998, detained without trial, and later charged with sodomy and corruption.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the treatment inflicted on Anwar. When Anwar was arraigned with a black eye nine days after his arrest – due to an assault in police custody by the country’s then-police chief – he quickly became a symbol of his new People’s Justice Party and his wishes for reform. He was jailed for six years for sodomy in 1999 and a year later another nine years for bribery – the charges Anwar says were a political plot by Mahathir to end his career. His case has drawn international criticism, with Amnesty International calling Anwar a “prisoner of conscience”.

Anwar was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power.

But Anwar was jailed for a second time for sodomy in 2015 – in a case he said was aimed at crushing his alliance that was making gains against the UMNO-led government. Yet he did not give up.

From his prison cell, Anwar reconciled with Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger boiled over over a multi-billion dollar scandal involving public investment fund 1MDB. Their meeting led to historic polls in 2018 that saw the unthinkable ousting of the UMNO-led alliance, which had ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned soon after and would have succeeded Mahathir, but infighting led to the collapse of their government just after 22 months. UMNO returned as part of a feuding government with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc which includes a hardline Islamic ally.

Yet the brief reign of Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan led to significant upheaval as the once-ruling UMNO leaders were imprisoned or brought to trial for corruption. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been imprisoned in a case related to the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current leader of UMNO and several party leaders also face separate corruption charges.

Anwar campaigned on a multiracial platform, promising to end racial and religious bigotry and block billions of dollars lost to entrenched corruption. He finally succeeded in his hard quest on Thursday after a long battle.

ABC News

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