Malaysia elects progressive coalition

Progressive Malaysia breathes a sigh of relief. Anwar Ibrahim, 75, leader of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) progressive coalition, was sworn in as Malaysia’s tenth prime minister today. It also means a personal triumph for Anwar Ibrahim after a long personal battle. He was imprisoned twice, including on likely politically motivated charges of ‘sodomy’. Three times his attempts to get a place on the government plush also failed.

The question now is whether he will be able to deliver on the reforms promised during his campaign. Malaysia is going through a difficult period. It is burdened by economic problems, political chaos, mismanagement and corruption.

Anwar Ibrahim also has to work with the Barisan Nasional power bloc, led by UMNO, the party that has dominated Malaysian politics for decades. Although Barisan Nasional lost heavily in last Saturday’s elections, it is necessary to form a coalition with a majority in the 220-member parliament.

The conservative opposition coalition ‘Perikatan Nasional’ (PN), which finished second in the elections with 73 seats, has been sidelined as a result.

New political era

Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by the People’s Justice Party (PKR), won 82 seats. Not enough to form a majority cabinet independently. For the first time in Malaysian history, both opposition leaders claimed they could secure a majority with support from other parties. The PN coalition was ultimately unable to substantiate its claim. But after talks with the king, the right-wing coalition ‘Barisan Nasional’ (BN) gave its support to a government led by the PH.

Malaysia is now entering a new political era, in which Barisan Nasional no longer rules. Voters turned massively away from this power bloc on Saturday. In recent years, the coalition has been characterized by internal power struggles and corruption scandals, such as the ‘1MDB scandal’, in which billions of euros in government money were diverted by leaders of the UMNO party, including former Prime Minister Razak.

In 2018, UMNO also lost the elections. But her opponents, including Anwar Ibrahim, soon fell apart to the point that the opposition coalition fell apart again in 2020.

This weekend’s winning coalition, Pakatan Harapan, is seen as progressive. For example, the new party MUDA, founded by 29-year-old Syed Saddiq, former sports minister, is part of the coalition.

Many parties in Malaysia are formed along ethnic lines. For example, UMNO has traditionally been a Malay-ethnic party. Parties that advocate an even more extreme ethnic policy also took part in last Saturday’s elections.

Multicultural and less corrupt

However, parties from the winning PH coalition strongly opposed such ethnic and religious conservative politics in the campaign. Many supporters also hope for a more progressive, multicultural and less corrupt Malaysia. Some of the progressives also hope that the coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim can limit the growing influence of conservative Islamist movements in Malaysia.

Anwar Ibrahim is not a newcomer. He was more often close to the highest office. In the 1990s, for example, as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, he was considered the protege of the then UMNO leader Mohamad Mahathir. In 1998, however, both became quarreled. Anwar Ibrahim was subsequently removed from office on sodomy and corruption charges.

Many critics are still convinced that the charge was fabricated and Mahathir was behind it because he would not tolerate a powerful rival at his side. Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy no less than twice and spent several years in prison. He received a pardon from the king in 2018. So this year he could finally make a shot at the premiership he so desired.

Yet there is also some skepticism among PH voters: can Anwar Ibrahim, as a veteran of UMNO, really bring about progressive change? During the campaign, PH supporters described their choice for Anwar Ibrahim to the NRC as ‘least bad of the candidates’. So he gets the benefit of the doubt. But because he was ‘the underdog’ for a long time and has fought his way back against all odds after a difficult road to the heart of power, many give him the benefit of the doubt. This Thursday, King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah did the same and decided to endorse Ibrahim’s premiership.

Read also: Young Malaysian voters have had enough of old politics

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