Anwar Ibrahim: Honeymoon as Malaysian PM will be brutally short

The honeymoon – if there even is one – will be brutally short.

(Jonathan Head, BBC) – Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia’s 10th prime minister last week, after an epic career in which he had sought the job, and come close to getting it, over a quarter of a century. But whatever jubilation he might have felt must have been tempered by the daunting task now confronting him.

The 75-year-old is a skilled orator with extensive political experience and personal charisma, but he has, in the past, also shown lapses of judgement. He must now muster all his strengths to fix the economy, satisfy long-suppressed demand for reform, ease racial mistrust and keep an unwieldy coalition together.

His reformist, multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won 82 parliamentary seats in last month’s election – more than any other political bloc, but well short of the 112 needed to form a government. Malaysia had its first hung parliament.

It then took five days of intense haggling among the different blocs for King Abdullah to choose Mr Anwar to lead the government. This was only possible because his old nemesis, UMNO, the party whose 61-year monopoly on power had been challenged and eventually ended by Mr Anwar and his allies in 2018, agreed to partner with him. But it’s an arrangement that leaves many in both UMNO and PH uneasy.

Mr Anwar’s first problem has been allocating cabinet posts. UMNO and its allies won only 30 seats in the election. But its price for cooperating with PH was to be given several cabinet posts.

The most controversial is the appointment of Ahmad Zahid, the powerful UMNO president, as one of the two deputy prime ministers. There was strong opposition to the appointment because Mr Zahid faces multiple criminal charges dating back to his time in the discredited administration of former prime minister Najib Razak, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

For its part UMNO has promised to support Mr Anwar in the confidence vote he plans to hold in parliament on 19 December, but said little about how this uncomfortable alliance will work.

“At the moment, the collection of parties backing the Anwar administration seems stable,” says Tricia Yeoh, CEO of the independent Malaysian think tank IDEAS. “However, it is a precarious situation where any major faux pas by Anwar could cause dissatisfaction among the UMNO rank-and-file, which may then escalate to the division chiefs, who are the influential power-brokers within the party.”

UMNO’s general assembly in December will be a test, she adds – rising dissatisfaction could lead to an internal party vote to withdraw support for Mr Anwar as PM.

“If Anwar survives till the end of December, events in the coming year may prove to be additional tests, such as UMNO’s party election, expected within the first quarter of 2023, and passing the full 2023 budget,” Ms Yeoh says.

Then there is the economy, still struggling to recover from the Covid pandemic. The first PH administration in 2018 was accused of neglecting bread-and-butter issues like jobs and food prices, instead pushing its political reform agenda. Mr Anwar, however, has already said that his top priority is helping the living standards of ordinary Malaysians.