Anwar’s appointment completes a thirty-year political journey from veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad’s protégé to protest leader, prisoner convicted of sodomy, leader of the opposition, and finally prime minister.
Markets rose after breaking the political deadlock. The ringgit currency posted its best day in two weeks, while shares rose 3% on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.
Saturday’s general election ended in an unprecedented suspension of parliament, and neither of the two main alliances, one led by Anwar and the other by ex-premier Muhyiddin Yassin, could immediately win enough seats in parliament to form a government.
Anwar, 75, has been denied premiership over and over again despite being within reach over the years: he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and official prime minister in 2018.
Mark Lourdes spoke to CNN about the 2018 Malaysian elections.
Meanwhile, he spent almost a decade in jail for sodomy and corruption on charges he says were politically motivated, aimed at ending his career.
Uncertainty about elections threatens to prolong political instability in the Southeast Asian nation, which has had three prime ministers in the same number of years, and risks delaying policy decisions needed to accelerate economic recovery.
Anwar leads a multi-ethnic coalition of parties with progressive views, while Muhyiddin’s alliance reflects more conservative, ethnically Malay and Muslim views.
His supporters have expressed hope that the Anwar government will prevent a return to historic tensions between ethnic Malays, the Muslim majority, and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“All we want is moderation for Malaysia, and Anwar represents that,” said a public relations manager in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to be named Tan.
“We can’t have a country divided by race and religion, as that would set us back another 10 years.”
Anwar told Reuters in an interview ahead of the election that he would seek to “emphasize governance and fight corruption and rid this country of racism and religious bigotry” if he is named prime minister.
His coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional bloc got 73. They needed 112 seats – a simple majority – to form a government.
The long-ruling Barisan bloc won just 30 seats, the worst electoral result for a coalition that has dominated politics since independence in 1957.
Barisan said on Thursday that he would not support a government led by Mukhiddin, although he did not mention Anwar.
Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Islamist PAS party, whose electoral success has raised concern among representatives of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians, most of whom follow other religions.
Authorities warned after a weekend vote of rising ethnic tensions on social media, and short video platform TikTok said it was on high alert over content that violated its rules.
Social media users reported numerous post-election TikTok posts mentioning riots in the capital Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, in which around 200 people were killed, days after ethnic Chinese voter-backed opposition parties , invaded the elections.
Police urged social media users to refrain from “provocative” posts and said they were setting up 24-hour roadblocks across the country to ensure public peace and safety.
The decision on a prime minister was made by King al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah after Anwar and Muhyiddin missed a Tuesday afternoon deadline for a ruling alliance.
The constitutional monarch plays a largely ceremonial role, but may appoint a prime minister whom he believes will have a majority in parliament.
Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy in which kings are elected in turn from the royal families of nine states for five-year terms.
As prime minister, Anwar will have to contend with rising inflation and slowing growth as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, while reducing ethnic tensions.
The most pressing issue will be next year’s budget, which was submitted before the election was called but has not yet been adopted.
Anwar will also have to strike deals with lawmakers from other blocs to maintain majority support in parliament.
“Anwar has been appointed at a critical time in Malaysian history when politics is at its most divided, recovering from the economic downturn and bitter memories of Covid,” said James Chai, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“Always seen as the man who could unite all warring factions, it’s only fitting that Anwar emerged during a period of division.”