KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — With a battle cry of “We Can,” reformist opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has launched what could be his last chance to fulfill a 2-decade-long quest to become Malaysia’s leader in Nov. 19 general elections.
As he criss-crosses the country to push his campaign of change, economic discontent and corruption-tainted rivals may just bolster his alliance’s fight for another surprise win.
A second victory at the ballot box would cap Anwar’s storied political journey, from a former deputy prime minister whose sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests to a reform movement that saw his bloc rise into a major political force.
Anwar, 75, was serving time on a sodomy charge critics say was trumped up when his Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, pulled off a stunning election victory in 2018 that led to the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
The PH campaign, fueled by anger over government corruption, was led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned and would have succeeded Mahathir, but their government collapsed in early 2020 and the former ruling party rolled back to power.
“Anwar has emerged as the strongest PM candidate contenders among the major coalitions,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert with Malaysia’s Nottingham University. “He has a fighting chance but it will depend on whether alliances can be formed in his favor after elections.”
Anwar’s alliance faces three Malay-based coalitions that are expected to split votes with multi-cornered fights for 222 parliamentary seats. Voter apathy after political turmoil that saw three prime ministers since 2018 polls, and the prospect of major flooding from seasonal monsoon rains could see a lower turnout of its supporters.
Some 6 million new voters, including those born after Anwar’s era, are wildcards. Anwar will also have to seek support from parties in two states on Borneo island, which account for a quarter of parliamentary seats. Some analysts predict a hung parliament with new alliances formed after the election.
“It is a real challenge for Harapan and Anwar as Malaysian elections are more competitive and voters more skeptical. Anwar comes into this election as a leader of the past and he has struggled to convince voters he is a leader for their future,” Welsh said.
It’s been a case of so near, yet so far for Anwar, who was on the cusp of power twice.
After his meteoric rise to deputy prime minister-cum-finance minister in the 1990s, Anwar was set to take over from Mahathir, who was premier for 22 years until 2003. But a bitter fallout over Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis saw Anwar sacked in 1998 and then imprisoned six years on corruption and sodomy charges. He was imprisoned a second time for sodomy 2015. Anwar and his supporters say the charges were concocted to destroy his career.
From his prison cell, Anwar made up with Mahathir, who returned to politics as anger boiled over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund. Their tie-up led to the historic ouster of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization — to which they both once belonged — in 2018 polls. Anwar waited on the sideline to succeed Mahathir but distrust and infighting caused their government to crumble just after 22 months, leading to continuous political turbulence.
Still, the PH rule led to a significant upheaval as once-power UMNO leaders were jailed or brought to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was imprisoned in a case linked to the 1MDB saga. His wife, UMNO’s current chief and several party leaders are also battling separate corruption charges, which have been used as ammunition by Anwar.
From his walkabouts to meet locals to rallies and dialogue with various communities, he carried the same message: deep-rooted corruption, racism and religious bigotry must go.
“Please! For goodness sake, for the sake of our children and our future, stop this rot. Stop this nonsense and it must begin on the 19th of November,” Anwar pleaded at a recent rally.
In a show of transparency, Anwar and dozens of other PH candidates have declared their assets — a move not followed by other blocs. If he wins, Anwar said he would also forego his salary as prime minister.
He promised to carry out institutional reforms including limiting the prime minister’s tenure to 10 years, and boost economic competitiveness as the country struggles with rising inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point. An entrenched patronage system involving UMNO and business tycoons will be dismantled, and decades-old policies favoring ethnic Malays in business, housing and education replaced with needs-based aid, he said. Critics say the affirmative action policy has been abused to enrich the elites, alienated minority groups and sparked a brain drain.
But persuading rural Malays, who have been constantly warned by UMNO of the risk of Chinese economic domination if the opposition won, remains a tall order. Anwar’s alliance includes a Chinese-majority party that has always been used as the bogeyman by UMNO. Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“People say ‘Long live the Malays’ but majority Malays are poor and face hardship. Only those at the top enjoy a good life,” Anwar, a Malay himself, told a recent rally. “I want to be a prime minister for everyone .. .let us work as a family. Let us build this country together.”
Anwar said that his alliance couldn’t carry out promised reforms fully during its short rule because Mahathir was never a reformist at heart. But with his bloc purged of defectors, he said it’s now stronger than ever. Mahathir subsequently formed a motley Malay alliance to again try to oust UMNO, but the pair has so far dismissed any cooperation.
“The challenges for PH are voter apathy and being able to win in rural constituencies, which is why Anwar is contesting a new Malay-majority seat to make sure his coalition can pass the final hurdle,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director with political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Anwar faces a four-way fight in Tambun constituency in northern Perak state, facing off against the incumbent who defected from his alliance. It is a risky gamble as failure could spell the end of his career. His wife and eldest daughter are also contesting the polls.
“This will be his last chance to be PM. He fails now, there are leaders waiting for him to make way … it is now or never,” Welsh said.
Read More: ‘We Can’: Malaysia’s Anwar in ultimate election bid to be PM