By Iskandar Zulkarnain and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Malaysians joke that Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of main opposition bloc, is always the bridesmaid and never the bride. That’s because he has spent decades waiting to become Malaysia’s prime minister.
This month’s general election might be his last shot at the top political office because his coalition will look for fresh leadership if it loses in the polls, analysts say. And the 75-year-old reformist won’t have an easy job securing votes from conservative Malays to support his multi-racial coalition, they add.
“I think his window of opportunities is getting smaller,” said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political science professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.
“If he fails this time, it is difficult to get such an opportunity again. Maybe his cries for reforms are no longer convincing to the post-‘Reformasi’ generation,” Tunku told BenarNews.
He was referring to nationwide protests that Anwar led during the late 1990s where he called for institutional reforms.
“If his health permits and his coalition can win the next general election, probably his supporters would still want to push him again as prime minister. However, if he fails this time, the coalition may want to move on from him,” Tunku Mohar added, referring to the Pakatan Harapan coalition that Anwar leads with his People’s Justice Party (PKR).
Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, agreed that Anwar’s future as prime minister material would depend on whether he can win in the Nov. 19 polls.
“Well, if Pakatan Harapan loses big in the next election, most probably this will be the last general election for Anwar Ibrahim and his desire to be prime minister should end at this particular juncture,” he said.
Anwar first became deputy prime minister back in 1993 under his mentor, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and was widely seen as succeeding him as Malaysia’s leader.
That relationship, however, deteriorated to the point where Mahathir sacked his protégé from the deputy PM post and expelled him his then-party the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Anwar was then arrested by the Mahathir government on sodomy charges and later imprisoned following his conviction.
Almost 20 years later, the two bitter foes then defied all expectations and joined forces to take on the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition.
Anwar’s and Mahathir’s Pakatan won a historic victory in 2018. The two agreed that Mahathir would be PM for two years and then hand over the post to Anwar. Instead, Mahathir quit two years later and Anwar again lost his chance to become PM when the Pakatan government collapsed over infighting.
Third in political survey
Few analysts give the multiracial Pakatan a chance this time around, saying the alliance is still struggling to break into the Malay heartland states dominated by Barisan and the Bersatu-led Perikatan Nasional.
Back in 2018, Pakatan comprised the Malay-centric Bersatu, which was led by former PM Mahathir. Now, Bersatu is no longer part of Pakatan. Led by another former PM, Muhyiddin Yassin, it includes the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Mahathir, meanwhile, leads a coalition called Gerakan Tanah Air.
“PKR was never the pulling factor for Malay votes since it existed. It is going to be very difficult for Pakatan,” said analyst Azmi.
“During the last election it was Bersatu, or, to be more specific, Mahathir, who pulled the Malay voters.”
A poll released this week on voters’ preference for the post of PM showed Anwar in third place, behind current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and former PM Muhyiddin.
Ismail Sabri led with the support of 19 percent of respondents. Muhyiddin came in second with 13 percent followed by Anwar with 11 percent support in the survey involving 1,662 respondents, conducted by political research firm Ilham Centre and released on Tuesday.
Anwar himself this week acknowledged the challenge that Pakatan would face.
“Of course, we have to penetrate the rural base,” Anwar told reporters on Wednesday, after the launch of Pakatan’s manifesto in Klang district outside Kuala Lumpur.
“The narrative there can sometimes be more complex because of the tendency of Bersatu, UMNO and PAS just to stress on the issue of race and religion.”
But were Anwar’s coalition to win, he would “institute a series of much needed structural reforms, such as the revamping of the government’s role in economy,” said analyst Oh Ei Sun.
“Such reforms would hurt the vested interests of many longtime stakeholders in the short term, but will benefit the country in the long term, making it a more attractive investment destination,” said Oh, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“And Anwar, with his already formidable international reputation, is also likely to bring about a more proactive foreign policy for the country that would see Malaysia punching above its weight on the international stage.”
Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.