Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

In race to parliament, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim faces down his critics

by Joseph Sipalan

Reuters

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim will face the first test of his return to political life on Saturday, in a by-election that would pave his way to claiming the premiership, as promised by former foe Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar, who is expected to win, needs a strong mandate in the fight in the coastal seat of Port Dickson to counter criticism that he is in a hurry to take over from the 93-year-old Mahathir, just five months after being released from prison.

“A bigger margin will give the by-election the appearance of a coronation, something Anwar has been awaiting for 20 years,” said Adib Zalkapli, an analyst with the political risk consulting firm Vriens & Partners. “If he wins by a smaller margin, he may be seen as merely riding on the popularity of Mahathir, without winning new support to the coalition.”

Mahathir led the Alliance of Hope coalition to a shock victory in a general election in May, unseating his former protege Najib Razak and ending the 61-year rule of the National Front coalition.

Their campaign focused on corruption concerns triggered by a multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), over which Najib and his wife face investigation.

Anwar could not run because he was in prison on a 2015 sodomy conviction, but his renewed partnership with Mahathir was key to the election win, after which Mahathir secured a royal pardon for Anwar.

The pair have had an acrimonious relationship over two decades, sparked when Mahathir, during his previous tenure as prime minister, sacked Anwar as his deputy in 1998. A year later, Anwar was convicted of corruption and sodomy.

Anwar and his supporters maintain that all the charges were trumped up to end his political career.

On Saturday, Anwar will face a motley crew of six contenders, among them former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, whose sodomy accusations against Anwar led to a second prison term.

Saiful said he was running to stop Anwar from becoming prime minister. “All this is not about the people. It’s about his personal agenda to become prime minister,” he said.

Another candidate, Stevie Chan, who has built up a large domestic following on Twitter, has also said he was running to take a stand against “political entitlement and arrogance.”

But 74 percent of survey respondents would still vote for Anwar, according to a poll by Institut Darul Ehsan, a think tank set up by the state of Selangor, which is ruled by his Pakatan coalition.

Anwar has kept up a break-neck campaign, supported by ruling coalition leaders, showcasing the charisma that jump-started the Reform movement after he was sacked in 1998.

Even Mahathir made an appearance, joining Anwar on stage for the first time in 20 years at a mega-rally on Monday.

Mahathir is the right man to lead the country “in the current situation,” Anwar told the rally, in a response to critics who question his ambitions.

“I say this with all humility. I know him, love him as a father and a leader. I fought against him, and now accept he is the best man to lead Malaysia now,” he said to thunderous applause from thousands of supporters.