MALAYSIA’s prime minister-in-waiting and former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim is expected to cruise to an easy victory in a by-election next weekend, taking him a step closer to realising his decades-long ambition of taking office.
Since the historic general election on May 9, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has repeatedly named Anwar as his successor — based on a power-sharing agreement made among Pakatan Harapan’s (Alliance of Hope) member parties before the polls — although it may take some years before the 93-year-old leader passes the mantle.
But for that to happen, Anwar, who received a royal pardon for his second sodomy conviction within a week of the former Barisan Nasional (National Front) government’s downfall, will need to run for a parliamentary seat.
Come Oct 13, voters of Port Dickson, a popular seaside town in the central state of Negeri Sembilan, will be hitting the polling stations where Anwar faces six other candidates.
In a bizarre dramatic twist, Anwar’s sodomy accuser, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, has also thrown his hat into the ring and will be fighting his former boss for the seat.
And although Anwar’s re-entry into Parliament brings much fanfare at home, his rise to the top post is expected to resonate across the region as well, especially with regards to Malaysia’s push for reforms and the promotion of democracy, experts say.
Director of independent pollster Merdeka Center Ibrahim Suffian said Anwar is expected to carry on putting the country on the path of reform due to numerous commitments he had made in the past.
“The expectation is that he will also allow for civil liberties to flourish in Malaysia and find a way to strike a balance between managing the interest between the majority Muslim community and the minorities that make up the country,” Ibrahim told the Asian Correspondent when contacted.
“At the same time, he will project a progressive Islamic image for the country that is in tune with the ideals of democracy and also good governance.”
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, the 71-year-old former deputy prime minister said his return to Parliament would allow him to play a “check-and-balance” role by looking at institutional reforms that include a review of the bumiputra policy, a contentious affirmative action programme that accords privileges to the majority Malay population and native ethnic groups.
“The policy, which is race-based and (has been) abused to enrich cronies, has to stop,” Anwar was quoted as saying.
While taking on the role as deputy prime minister during Dr Mahathir’s first term as premier, Anwar, who led a massive Muslim student opposition movement called ABIM in his younger days, enjoyed a cordial relationship with the west, especially the United States.
The relationship with the US continued to flourish even more when Anwar was removed from Cabinet and slapped with sodomy and corruption charges in 1998, accusations he maintains were politically motivated.
Regardless of Anwar’s long-standing relationship with the west, Ibrahim believes Malaysia’s foreign policy would remain consistent amid the backdrop of rising tensions between the US and China.
“As a leader of a country, he will in all likelihood continue the non-aligned nature of Malaysian foreign policy try to get the best relationship for Malaysia with major superpowers like China, US, India and the rest of West,” Ibrahim said.
“I think he will continue to maintain that fine balance to allow Malaysians to have a more independent foreign policy that is not too closely aligned or dictated by the major powers.”
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Faculty of Social Sciences Professor Dr Sivamurugan Pandian says Anwar has always been loved by the leaders in the Asian region and in other countries as well.
“I believe if he rises to become the prime minister, he may want to use his background, his character to ensure that democracy can be upheld and to move forward to make Malaysia a better country for Asia and the others,” he told the Asian Correspondent.
Sivamurugan said Anwar’s foreign policy would “very much focus on to what extent he will be able to become the voice of the Islamic world and Asean, and also for the third world.”
“He is well-respected and although he has a good relationship with America, he will also make sure that Malaysia is not caught in the fight between these two superpowers, especially when it comes to Asean,” he said.
Anwar’s wife and Malaysia’s current Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is expected to step down when Anwar replaces Dr Mahathir, has pointed out Anwar’s recognition as the “best” finance minister during the nineties.
“Previously what did Anwar Ibrahim do…he (Anwar) had done a lot to the extent that as the finance minister, he was the best then,” she told voters in Port Dickson recently.
Anwar needs to win big
In order to boost the morale of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the multi-ethnic party that Anwar leads, the charismatic leader needs to secure a huge margin, Professor Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani of Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) said.
Mohd Azizuddin pointed out, however, that by-elections usually see lower turnouts.
“Anwar will likely win because Port Dickson is largely a fortress for PKR, but Anwar must win big in order to give a boost in morale to his party and for him to become prime minister.”
Anwar has met some opposition within his party ranks and strong backers, but Mohd Azizuddin says these factors were “negligible”.
“What’s important for Anwar to focus on are the locals – who are the ones who will go out to vote for him and see him win big. And the victory will be good for him to become prime minister.”