KUALA LUMPUR – Anwar Ibrahim has emerged as the winner in a district by-election, clearing the way for the formerly jailed leader to become the nation’s eighth prime minister.
Anwar, 71, leader of the largest party in the ruling coalition, is set to be inaugurated on Monday after winning 71 percent of votes against six other candidates for a Parliament seat, the Election Commission announced Saturday. Polling at the coastal town of Port Dickson ended at 5 p.m. local time with voter turnout at 58 percent.
“The results exceeded our expectations because we obtained a convincing majority,” Anwar said after being declared the victor. “We were able to convincingly win the support of all races,” he said, referring to the constituency’s ethnic split of Malays, Chinese and Indians. While he’s set to replace Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in a year or two, he has tempered expectations of taking an immediate role in the cabinet. He would first focus on developing his constituency as a tourism destination while working on reforms in the legislative body, giving Mahathir space to run the government. Mahathir has vouched for this, and appeared by Anwar’s side at a rally Monday.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition engineered the by-election to realize its succession plan for Anwar. The group chose Mahathir as their interim prime minister candidate and Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the deputy for the election in May, as Anwar was ineligible to contest due to a sodomy conviction that’s been widely criticized as political. His full pardon and release was granted within a week of the coalition’s victory. In August, he became the president of People’s Justice Party, the largest in the alliance, without contest.
The ruling coalition’s unity rests on relations between Anwar and Mahathir, who have a fraught history going back to the 1990s. Mahathir decided to sack Anwar as his deputy amid debates on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Anwar was then jailed twice, once for committing sodomy and abusing power, and a second time for a subsequent sodomy conviction. He has denied the charges.
Mahathir hasn’t committed to a timeline for the handover, though Anwar has consistently said he wants to let the current prime minister complete “the major task” of rooting out corruption. Mahathir is grappling with fulfilling campaign promises with a budget that’s constrained by debt and liabilities, all while seeking to get to the bottom of the globe-spanning 1MDB scandal in order to recoup $4.5 billion of potentially missing funds.
“This sort of teamwork will be very essential for him to continue getting the latitude and space without any encumbrances, and for me to assume the position much later,” Anwar said in a September interview. “We’ve accepted the fact that the country must be saved, that the country takes precedence.”