KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s reformist icon Anwar Ibrahim was freed from custody Wednesday after receiving a royal pardon, transforming a political prisoner into a prime minister-in-waiting following his alliance’s stunning election victory.
Anwar, 70, was convicted of sodomy in 2015 in a case he said was aimed at crushing his alliance, which was making gains against Malaysia’s long ruling coalition government. His sentence was set to end June 8 but last week’s unexpected election win, which ended the National Front’s 60-year rule, led to his swift release.
Dressed in a suit, Anwar waved to reporters as he was whisked from a hospital, where he was recovering from shoulder surgery, to an audience with Malaysia’s king. The royal palace said in a statement that the monarch had given Anwar a full pardon following advice from the Pardons Board.
Anwar is prime minister-in-waiting but unlikely to take over quickly from Mahathir Mohamad, who after leading Anwar’s alliance in the election campaign has become the world’s oldest leader at 92.
Mahathir, premier for 22 years until 2003, said Tuesday that he will run the country for “one to two years” to fix Malaysia’s financial problems, creating uncertainty about how the two will work together in the interim.
It was Anwar’s second spell in prison. Once a high flyer in the ruling party, Anwar was convicted of homosexual sodomy and corruption after a power struggle with Mahathir in 1998.
Anwar and his supporters have long denied the sodomy allegations, saying they were concocted to destroy his political career. Yet rather than give up, Anwar worked from his prison cell to forge a new opposition alliance by ending the two-decade feud with Mahathir — a gamble that paid off when the alliance won the May 9 polls.
His daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar has said the pardon was sought on the grounds of miscarriage of justice. Anwar needs to contest a by-election to become a member of Parliament before he could replace Mahathir.
Analysts say his release could cause tensions in the new government due to the dominance of the two leaders. Mahathir is the chairman of the alliance and Anwar is its de-facto leader.
“The hope is that Anwar and Mahathir will find a way to work together especially during this period of transition,” said Rashaad Ali, research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“This is an opportunity for both of them to move forward for the sake of the country. There may be clashes between these two big personalities but (officials in their) coalition as well as the expectations of Malaysians will provide a check and balance,” he said.
Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is the new deputy premier, has said there was no rush for Anwar to take over.
She said time is needed for the country’s “healing process” after the first transition of power in six decades, and that Anwar should recover fully from recent surgery before jumping back to politics.
Anwar is expected to thank supporters at a rally later Wednesday.