After trying, vainly, for decades—and serving two jail terms in part as a price—to become prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim finally has attained the position. After Malaysia’s election last November, in which no party or coalition won a majority of seats in parliament, the country witnessed five days of furious horse-trading among political leaders. Anwar, now seventy-five, ultimately managed to assemble a coalition with enough votes to make him prime minister.
To do so, he had to make some unusual political alliances; he teamed up with the United Malays National Organization, the party that has dominated Malaysia for most of its time as an independent country. Contrary to the clean reputation of Anwar’s coalition, the historically dominant, primarily Malay, and often corrupt UMNO has been involved in numerous scandals, including the massive 1MDB scandal that put former UMNO leader and prime minister, Najib tun Razak, in jail.
To many Malaysians, including those from the Chinese and Indian minority groups and secular urbanites, Anwar’s compromises were necessary to avoid the alternative. That alternative would have been a coalition led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and heavily dominated by Islamist voices seeking to intertwine Islam more closely with politics and possibly use power to promote a more conservative brand of Islam nationwide.
Yet Anwar’s unorthodox coalition, a mix of UMNO politicians and members of his own alliance, which draws heavily on ethnic minorities and urbanites and often speaks of cleaning up Malaysian politics, will make effective governance difficult. Anwar is a skilled mediator and negotiator, but if the early months of his tenure are any indicator, he will need every bit of savvy he has to remain in office and actually achieve any of his goals.
For more on Anwar’s tough test as prime minister, see my new World Politics Review article, available here.