Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s twice-jailed former opposition leader, walked free on Wednesday afternoon, bringing an end to a tumultuous legal saga that saw the iconic politician incarcerated on sodomy charges that critics and observers have long regarded as politically motivated.
Emerging from a hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he had been receiving treatment following shoulder surgery last November, Anwar smiled and waved to supporters before being whisked away for an audience with Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuang Agong. The sultan gave Anwar a full royal pardon.
Anwar’s expedited release is yet another stunning development in Malaysia’s politics following the shock election victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition earlier this month, ending the uninterrupted six decade rule of the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and returning former leader Mahathir Mohamad to the premiership.
Mahathir, who previously governed Malaysia for 22 years as prime minister, was the first to greet Anwar upon his arrival at the national palace. The scene signaled a new chapter in the volatile and dramatic relationship between the two politicians, who have been both political allies and bitter rivals at different intervals of Malaysia’s recent history.
Anwar, 70, who was Mahathir’s deputy premier from 1993 to 1998, was tipped to be his successor before being sacked and jailed on sodomy charges that were eventually dropped. Malaysian politics has now come full circle, with Anwar once again expected to succeed Mahathir, 92, who plans to step down after serving one to two years in elected office.
The unlikely plot twist resulted from Anwar and Mahathir putting aside years of enmity to join forces with the aim of toppling scandal-plagued and increasingly authoritarian Najib Razak, who became the first Malaysian leader to lose an election at the May 9 polls, marking the country’s first political transition since achieving independence.
“At a time when democracy is in retreat around the world, I hope that the people of Malaysia have given some hope to people around the world clamoring for their own freedom,” Anwar told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview on the eve of his release, saying that Malaysia was now on the cusp of a “golden era.”
Mahathir, said Anwar, “cares deeply about Malaysia” and described their new partnership as “essential” to overcoming the corruption that had become entrenched under Najib’s watch.
“Our litmus test has always been supporting the reform agenda,” he said, “So long as there is sincere commitment to these principles, we have always welcomed new supporters. The animosity which preoccupies some observers is not an issue for me.”
Anwar is widely viewed as personifying the political and economic reforms yearned for by urban Malaysians who favor pluralism, press freedom, transparency and clean government. He has also argued for reforming affirmative-action policies that give ethnic Malays preferential treatment in obtaining loans, scholarships and licenses, among other race-based advantages.
Critics say the bumiputera, or “sons of the soil”, policy introduced in 1971 as the New Economic Policy (NEP) to assist ethnic Malays who were disproportionally impoverished in comparison with other ethnic groups, has created a class of politically connected Malay rent-seekers that has dampened competitiveness and fueled resentment among non-Malays.
Mahathir has long-defended the bumiputera policy and some observers believe ethnic Malay voters backed his multi-ethnic opposition coalition because they felt assured the nonagenarian premier would continue to champion and safeguard ethnic Malay interests. It remains to be seen how Harapan intends to reform bumiputera policies, if at all.
Addressing a press conference hours after his release, Anwar lent his full support to the Mahathir-led Harapan coalition but said he would not immediately assume office, despite having obtained a royal pardon which allows him to re-enter active politics immediately.
“I will be kept informed but I don’t need to serve in the Cabinet for now,” he said, explaining that he now sought time off with his family after being detained since February 2015 on a five-year prison sentence.
Anwar also thanked Sultan Muhammad V for “taking the immediate and firm decision” to release him without any conditions. Prison authorities have confirmed that his criminal record had been completely erased after being granted a royal pardon.
Anwar must contest and win a by-election for a parliamentary seat to be eligible to become prime minister. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and incumbent deputy premier, indicated she would likely vacate her position as a parliamentarian to trigger a by-election that would expedite Anwar’s return to office when he decides to re-enter politics.
Mahathir maintains his experience is required to remedy a host of issues plaguing the country. Observers believe the nonagenarian premier’s political clout is needed to push through key reforms and pursue corruption charges against powerful politically connected figures.
The premier recently told the Wall Street Journal that he intends to have a role behind the scenes following his resignation.
The immediate task ahead for the Harapan coalition is to reach a consensus on cabinet appointments after a faction within Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Anwar-led party which is currently the largest of four Harapan component parties, voiced disapproval of initial appointments.
Kishore Mahbubani, a veteran Singapore diplomat and a professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore, foresees a degree of instability ahead as parties jostle for Cabinet positions and has cautioned Anwar to remain patient over the leadership transition.
“If Anwar is patient, he will know eventually that he will be prime minister. It is not in his interest to rock the boat when the tide is in his favor,” he said. “The reasons for [Anwar and Mahathir] working together are stronger than for fighting one another.”
Critics of Anwar, including some of his former political allies, have accused him in the past of being preoccupied with capturing political power, even if it meant using underhanded tactics to do so.
In a 2014 bid to install his wife as chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, Anwar engineered a maneuver to topple his party’s own state government.
The incident, known as the “Kajang Move”, went awry in nearly every aspect and proved to be an ill-conceived gamble that undermined public trust and failed to achieve its aim, inciting a political crisis to the detriment of the now-defunct Pakatan Raykat opposition coalition Anwar once led.
Cooperation and good will between Mahathir and Anwar would be music to the ears of Harapan supporters, allaying fears of disunity within the newly formed coalition government. Anwar now has a clear path to the premiership, a role that many Malaysians believe he deserves following decades of political persecution.
Anwar’s dismissal as deputy premier and arrest in September 1998 gripped Malaysia and spilt the Malay community down to the family level, stoking a sharp reaction from regional and world capitals where Anwar, who also at the time served as finance minister, was regarded as a prudent moderate and reformer.
A rift between Mahathir and Anwar emerged over differences regarding how to handle the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As economic and political turmoil spread throughout the region, neighboring Indonesia’s long-serving President Suharto was driven from office, raising the potential for a similar popular wave to drive Mahathir from power.
Anwar and his supporters called for a new reform movement to take shape following the crisis and began to adopt the slogan of the Indonesian reform movement, or “reformasi.” That led Mahathir to believe his deputy had plans to topple him.
Anwar was later accused of sodomizing Azizan Abu Bakar, his wife’s male driver at the time, charges viewed widely as politically motivated. In detention under emergency laws, he was brutally beaten by then Police Chief Abdul Rahim Noor, leaving Anwar bruised with a black eye. Abdul was eventually charged with assault, though Mahathir publically questioned at the time whether the injuries were self-inflicted.
Found guilty in 2000 and sentenced to nine years in prison, the Anwar episode marred the rest of Mahathir’s term until his 2003 resignation. In 2004, Anwar won his final appeal against the sodomy conviction after judges admitted the offense had not been proven by the prosecution, which provided inconsistent and contradictory statements.
Sodomy charges were raised again in 2008 when Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, Anwar’s then-political aide, lodged a police report claiming that he had been sodomized. Medical reports confirmed that no anal penetration had occurred and Anwar was acquitted in 2012 when the integrity of samples taken for DNA testing were in doubt.
The issue cropped up again when prosecutors overturned the acquittal, leading to a guilty conviction in March 2014. Anwar has consistently denied the charges, which he has always regarded as a bid to cripple his leadership ambitions. The long-running episode, it seems, has finally drawn to a close.