Malaysia’s Anwar on an impatient comeback trail
Politician's popularity as prime minister-in-waiting will be tested at this weekend's poll, a forced contest some feel puts undue pressure on incumbent premier Mahathir Mohamad
Months after being pardoned and released from prison, the man seen as Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting is staging a grand comeback to propel his political ascent.
Unable to contest in May’s historic general election, veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim is looking to clinch a decisive majority in Saturday’s (October 12) parliamentary by-election in the seaside constituency of Port Dickson.
While the twice-jailed former opposition leader will by nearly all projections emerge victorious, a crowded field of seven candidates are vying to win the federal parliamentary seat in Negeri Sembilan, a coastal state roughly an hour’s drive from the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Thousands flocked to a campaign rally earlier this week to see Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly endorse the man tipped to succeed him, sharing a stage with Anwar for the first time in two decades. From political allies to bitter rivals and back, the two men have retaken their places at the apex of Malaysia’s politics against all odds.
Anwar previously served as deputy to Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and was seen as his likely successor. A feud between the two men in 1998 saw Anwar sacked and subsequently jailed on politicized sodomy charges.
The two iconic politicians joined forces last year in an unlikely plot twist while Anwar was still in prison, and successfully toppling scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak at this May’s elections.
While it remains to be seen whether the prime minister’s appearance will translate into support for Anwar among those still undecided, Mahathir’s decision to stump for his former deputy sends a message that the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition remains united, helping to dispel persistent rumors that the two men are, in fact, at odds.
The nonagenarian premier has promised to step down at the spry age of 95, after two years at the helm, and has several times reiterated that Anwar will succeed him. A clear timetable for the transition has, however, yet to be made public. Before taking the reins of the premiership, Anwar must first be elected as a parliamentarian to be eligible for the top job.
After his release from prison in May, which saw the politician walk free after serving three years of a five-year sentence for sodomy charges widely regarded as politically motivated, Anwar signaled that he would take time off with his family and go on a lecture circuit at leading universities around the world to spread the message of reform and moderate Islam.
His move to re-enter the political fray a mere five months later has raised eyebrows in certain quarters. Critics have panned the political veteran’s comeback as a signal of his “impatience” to take over, while others voiced concerns that moving too far, too fast could put undue strain on the newly incumbent ruling coalition and even appear as an attempt to undermine Mahathir.
When Danyal Balagopal Abdullah – a member of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) political party, a member of the Pakatan Harapan – announced his resignation as Port Dickson’s parliamentarian on September 12 to clear the way for Anwar to contest, some questioned the ethics of triggering a by-election held for the purpose of furthering one person’s agenda.
Four by-elections have been attributed to Anwar since 2008, making him the next most frequent trigger for by-elections in the last decade after deaths caused by cancer (nine cases) and heart attack (eight cases). He also notably took heat from PKR’s top brass for purportedly engineering the latest forced by-election in secret.
Anwar has responded to criticism from his party by clarifying that he now sought to “make an inroad into parliament” to aid his junior peers with “drafting policies and legal frameworks for the benefit of the people.” He has also denied being impatient to take over the premiership, and defends his right to contest after having languished nearly nine years behind bars on dubious charges.
While most regard his by-election victory as a foregone conclusion, the iconic politician has cautioned supporters not to rest on their laurels, urging his party’s election machinery to work for the good of the country. Anwar, 71, has mounted a robust campaign that has seen him crisscrossing the ward to attend up to 14 functions and rallies a day.
Once heralded as a holiday spot for nearby Kuala Lumpur residents, Anwar has vowed to rejuvenate Port Dickson’s ailing tourism industry and restore the town’s destination status with a slew of hotel redevelopment projects. In addition to promising cleaner beaches, he spoke of jobs and housing for the town’s middle- and lower-income residents.
He faces competition from a handful of challengers, including former Negri Sembilan chief minister Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, the only candidate in the race who actually hails from Port Dickson. Some analysts believe Isa, who remains popular with voters in the constituency, could wield widespread grassroots support to shave votes away from Harapan.
The former chief minister governed the state for 22 years and resigned from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) last week to contest as an independent after the former ruling party announced it would boycott the “unnecessary” race in protest. UMNO has criticized the vote as contrary to “the principles of democracy.”
Anwar is also going up against his former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who infamously alleged he had been sodomized by his then-boss in 2008. Saiful’s testimony eventually led to Anwar’s conviction in 2014 despite an earlier acquittal in 2012. Anwar was released days after Harapan took office after Malaysia’s constitutional monarch granted him a royal pardon.
Saiful’s participation in the race as an independent is “one of many signs that Anwar’s past will continue to be scrutinized even as he shapes his political future,” says Prashanth Parameswaran, a Washington-based editor for The Diplomat. “As he continues his role in government, his opponents can be expected to continue to use selective aspects of his past against him.”
The former opposition leader has acknowledged the need to deliver a resounding victory because “he rightly understands this is a litmus test for his wider popularity,” Prashanth says.
“If there’s a low voter turnout – something that is quite normal in by-elections – or if he wins with a less than impressive margin, his detractors will claim that voters are not too enthusiastic about his candidature,” says veteran Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius, who believes that the crowded contest is “not happening by coincidence.”
The entry of Isa Samad and Saiful Bukhari into the race both serve to cause Anwar “maximum embarrassment and possibly reduce his margin of victory,” Ignatius says, suggesting their presence is an “indication of the forces that are arrayed against him.”
Opinion polls suggest Anwar has a commanding lead ahead of the by-election. Surveys conducted by the state-linked Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) think tank show support for the veteran politician exceeding 70%, with nearly three in four respondents favoring him over the other candidates.
Anwar’s campaign is eyeing a majority win of at least 18,000 votes with a voter turnout of at least 60%. During May’s general election, then-PKR candidate Danyal Balagopal managed to clinch the seat with a 17,710-vote majority, with voter turnout at 83%. The multiethnic ward has been a considered a PKR stronghold since the 2008 general election.
“In many ways, Anwar is in a no-win situation,” Ignatius wrote in a recent article. “If he keeps quiet and out of the fray, he might well be sidelined. If he keeps reminding the country of his status as heir-apparent, he is seen as impatient. The more he professes support for Mahathir, the more people question his support.”
“It’s a delicate road to walk admittedly and he appears to be having trouble getting the balance right,” opined the veteran diplomat.