By Muzliza Mustafa, Iman Muttaqin Yusof, Fitri Hazim and Nisha David
After decades of leading the opposition in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim took the oath as the nation’s 10th prime minister on Thursday after the king appointed him PM in resolving an impasse from an election that resulted in a hung parliament.
The leader of Pakatan Harapan bloc, which reflects the country’s multiethnic and multireligious populace, now heads a ruling coalition that includes UMNO, a Malay-centric party he had campaigned against in the election but whose backing helped Anwar finally clinch power.
“[Pakatan Harapan] and the unity government will uphold the Federal Constitution. The Malay rights will continue to be at the core while the rights of other races and regions will remain protected,” he said during his first press conference as prime minister, confirming that UMNO/Barisan was a partner in his government.
“This government is a national unity government.”
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and chairman of the Barisan Nasional coalition, had accompanied Anwar to the swearing-in ceremony at the National Palace on Thursday afternoon.
“I am a prime minister representing all Malaysians and to maintain peace and harmony, I will continue waiting for the readiness of PN to be together [in this unity government],” Anwar told reporters on Thursday night.
He was referring to the Perikatan Nasional coalition headed by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who refused to join a unity government with him, and whose coalition had captured the second most number of seats in parliament, according to the Election Commission.
In the early afternoon, the palace announced that King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah had decided to name Anwar as the head of Malaysia’s new government after holding a special meeting with fellow members of the Council of Rulers.
The palace said the monarch had ordered those who would serve in the new government to stay humble.
Comparing Malaysia to an inheritance “where the leaders are the trustees,” the king “reminded all parties that the winners do not win all and the losers do not lose all,” the palace said in a statement, adding that all MPs must work together.
“The people should not be burdened with endless political turmoil when the country needs a stable government to stimulate the economic landscape and development of the country,” the statement said.
The king had met with the Council of Rulers – the sultans of nine states and governors of the other four for about an hour before making his decision. Every five years, one of the sultans assumes the role of king.
“The Malay Rulers also support His Majesty’s position for the formation of a stable government as soon as possible following GE15 through a careful and thorough process and in-depth observation,” the statement said, referring to the 15th general election.
The king normally does not decide who will be prime minister, as the leader of the party or coalition which wins the majority of parliamentary seats assumes the role, but the monarch does have the power to appoint a PM he believes is supported by a majority of parliamentarians.
The king has had to step in twice in the recent past to appoint prime ministers – in 2020 to appoint Muhyiddin Yassin and last year to appoint Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
The appointment of Anwar occurred because no coalition could claim a majority (111) of the 221 parliament seats filled by voters in the Nov. 19 election.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan – aligned with the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) and Democratic Action Party (DAP) – secured 82 seats, more than any other coalition, according to the Election Commission.
Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional, together with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Sabah-based Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) won 79 seats, according to the official results.
But after the palace announced that Anwar would be the next prime minister, Muhyiddin came out to dispute the decision. He claimed that his side gave the palace proof that it had garnered the support of 115 MPs – four more than the 111 needed to form the government.
Muyhiddin said Perikatan had handed in documents proving this in time for an original deadline set by the palace on Nov. 21.
“I believe [that] at that time I had the confidence of the majority of MPs to be appointed as the 10th prime minister,” he said.
“[F]or the sake of the people’s confidence in the legitimacy of Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister, it is appropriate for him to prove that he has the support of the majority of MPs,” Muhyiddin said.
On Tuesday, the king had expressed his preference for a “unity government” as a solution for resolving the election impasse. Anwar was open to the idea but Muhyiddin rejected it, saying he would not partner with Anwar and Pakatan in a new ruling coalition.
The Barisan Nasional coalition – which had led the Malaysian government for six decades before losing power for the first time in the 2018 election – won only 30 seats this time around.
Early on Thursday, UMNO leaders announced that they would follow the king’s decision.
“The Supreme Council has unanimously decided to support and uphold the king’s decree that Barisan Nasional support and participate in a unity government that is not led by Perikatan Nasional to ensure that a stable and prosper government can be formed,” UMNO said in a statement.
UMNO will have a role in the new government, although its decision to call early elections for backfired on Malaysia’s oldest party, which was drubbed at the polls.
Zahid, the UMNO chief, released a statement later on Thursday supporting the king’s decision and telling others not to disobey if they do not agree with it because the “wisdom of His Majesty is unmatched.”
“Stay calm and let’s rebuild Malaysia for the good of all religions and races, for the sake of our children,” Zahid said. “We uphold the order of the King for a unity government.”
Mahathir Mohammad, the 97-year-old former prime minister who lost his MP race last week, was among those criticizing the formation of the new government through an alliance between Pakatan, Barisan and other parties.
“It’s not that I don’t want to support Pakatan Harapan but they conspired with Zahid,” Mahathir said.
Rafizi Ramli, deputy president of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), thanked the king for the appointment.
He called on party and Pakatan coalition members to avoid a large gathering, be careful with statements to the media from political figures and be wary of social media posts that could provoke others.
“We all need to move forward and learn to work together to rebuild Malaysia, for the future and prosperity of every citizen from all groups, races, states, and backgrounds,” he said in a statement.
Elsewhere, DAP chairman Lim Guan Eng congratulated Anwar via a Twitter post.
“Thanks to His Majesty the King for his wisdom in appointing Anwar and forming a unity government that represents all Malaysians,” he wrote in the post. “Let us unite with Anwar to defend the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and ensure economic progress for all.”
Anwar was arrested on sodomy and corruption charges in 1998, leading to nearly two decades in and out of courts and prison, interspersed by electoral comebacks. In 2004, the sodomy conviction was overturned, but his corruption conviction stood. In 2014, he was again convicted and imprisoned for sodomy but received a full pardon in 2018.
In 2018, Anwar and Mahathir became allies years after they fell out when Mahathir dumped Anwar as his deputy prime minister in the late 1990s.
Four years ago, they campaigned on a platform to rid the government of corruption and oust Najib Razak, then the prime minister and chief of UMNO, over the 1MDB financial scandal.
Anwar’s and Mahathir’s parties, along with other opposition groups formed Pakatan Harapan, the Malay words for “Alliance of Hope,” to pull off an election upset in 2018, but the Pakatan government collapsed in February 2020 over infighting.
Earlier this year, Najib was sent to prison to serve out a 12-year sentence after he was convicted in 2020 of corruption and abuse of power linked to the scandal, in which billions of U.S. dollars were looted from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a sovereign wealth fund.
The view from experts
Analysts reacted positively to Anwar’s appointment as PM.
“This decision helps build an inclusive government, bringing in MPs of different ethnicities representing the various regions in the state,” Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, an analyst from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews.
“I think he would address bread-and-butter issues and inter-ethnic relations in the country.”
A market adviser said Anwar must make Malaysia attractive to investors.
“It is unfair to expect Anwar to perform miracles, especially against a backdrop of a global recession,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director at market advisory firm Bower Group Asia, told BenarNews.
“Anwar as prime minister, must reestablish Malaysia on the global stage as the political instability in the last term impacted investor confidence in the country’s economic resilience.”