Malaysia’s king appoints Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister after inconclusive elections

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as prime minister Thursday, capping a three-decade political journey from a protégé of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad to protest leader, convicted sodomist and opposition leader.

His appointment ends five days of unprecedented post-election crisis but could lead to fresh volatility with his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, challenging him to prove his majority in parliament.

Both men failed to win a majority in Saturday’s election, but the constitutional monarch, King Al-Sultan Abdullah, appointed Anwar after speaking to several lawmakers.

Anwar takes power at a difficult time: The economy is slowing and the country is divided after a tight electoral contest that pitted Anwar’s progressive coalition against Muhyiddin’s conservative, mainly Malay, Muslim alliance.

Anwar, 75, has repeatedly turned down the prime ministership despite being at a distance over the years: He was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and the official prime minister-in-waiting in 2018.

In between, he spent nearly a decade in prison for sodomy and corruption on politically motivated charges he says were aimed at ending his career.

Uncertainty over the election has threatened to prolong political instability in the Southeast Asian country, which has had three prime ministers in as many years, and risks delaying the policy decisions needed to drive economic recovery.

Anwar’s coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional bloc won 73. They need 112 — a simple majority — to form a government.

The long-ruling Barisan bloc won only 30 seats, the worst electoral performance for a coalition that had dominated politics since independence in 1957.

Barisan said on Thursday it would not support a Muhyiddin-led government, although it made no mention of Anwar.

Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Islamist PAS party, whose electoral gains have raised concerns in a country with significant ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities, most of whom follow other religions.

As prime minister, Anwar will have to deal with rising inflation and slowing growth while easing ethnic tensions.

The most immediate issue will be next year’s budget, which was tabled before the election was called but has yet to be voted on.

Anwar will also have to negotiate deals with lawmakers from other blocs to ensure he can retain majority support in Parliament.

“Anwar is being appointed at a critical juncture in Malaysia’s history, where politics is more fractured, recovering from a depressed economy and a bitter memory of COVID,” said James Chai, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Always seen as the man who could unite all warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar emerged at a time of division.”

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