KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s king has agreed to pardon Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s newly installed prime minister said Friday, paving the way for the jailed opposition leader to return to politics and potentially become premier.
It was the latest dramatic development after Mahathir Mohamad’s opposition alliance inflicted a shock defeat on the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, ending the corruption-riddled regime’s six-decade stranglehold on power.
Mahathir was sworn in Thursday, becoming the world’s oldest elected leader at 92.
Mahathir, who had ruled with an iron fist for over two decades before retiring in 2003, cut ties with BN due to allegations that the party’s leader and his ex-protege Najib Razak oversaw the pillaging of sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
The elderly politician joined forces with opposition parties that opposed him while in power and agreed that if elected, he would hand over the premiership to Anwar, his former nemesis.
Mahathir has previously said he would likely remain prime minister for two to three years, before transferring power to Anwar.
Anwar, from the People’s Justice Party, is a key longtime leader of the opposition alliance.
One of Malaysia’s most charismatic politicians, he was heir-apparent to the premiership until Mahathir sacked him in 1998 and he was subsequently jailed for sodomy and abuse of power.
But in a remarkable turnaround, the pair reconciled and joined forces as allegations mounted over 1MDB and Najib became increasingly authoritarian, jailing opponents and introducing laws to stifle dissent.
Anwar, now 70, was jailed again in 2015 during Najib’s rule, and had been due out next month.
But Mahathir told a press conference that King Sultan Muhammad V, in a meeting with opposition leaders, had indicated he was willing to grant Anwar a royal pardon immediately.
The royal pardon would mean he could return to politics straight away. Without it, he would be banned from political life for five years.
“We will begin the… proper process of obtaining a pardon,” Mahathir told reporters. “He should be released immediately when he is pardoned.”
• ‘Hidden evidence of wrongdoing’-
Mahathir also announced that 10 cabinet positions would be filled on Saturday, including finance, defence and foreign affairs.
Asked about 1MDB, he accused Attorney-General Mohamed Ali Apandi — who cleared Najib over the scandal — of having “undermined his own credibility.”
“He in fact has hidden evidence of wrongdoing and that is wrong in law,” he said. “Our intention is to go for people who have shown a tendency to be corrupt or who had committed known corrupt crimes.”
In 2016, Apandi said the Saudi royal family was the source of $681 million that mysteriously appeared in Najib’s bank accounts, and closed the 1MDB probe.
Apandi came to office after Najib sacked the previous attorney general, who was believed to be aggressively investigating the matter.
Mahathir also said there was widespread fraud during the hard-fought election campaign, and raised concerns about irregularities in the Borneo state of Sabah, where BN made heavy losses.
“In the last two days, for example, there were no speeches made, only money distributed,” he said. “We will properly investigate all these things because we want to follow the rule of law.”
His comments might raise eyebrows however. Critics say there was much electoral fraud during Mahathir’s time in power, while corruption and cronyism flourished, and his government pushed policies that favored the Muslim Malay majority and exacerbated racial tensions.
Still, analysts say the attempted cheating at Wednesday’s poll was worse than anything seen before.
BN was accused of gerrymandering while activists said he hurled cash and gifts at voters and there was a litany of problems with the electoral roll, including dead people appearing on the list.
But voters turned out in droves, determined to push out the government, with the opposition boosted by the presence of standard-bearer Mahathir, who has a huge following among ethnic Malays.