Once a rising star within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). And then a rebel reformer thrown into prison by his former boss. The story of Anwar Ibrahim is that of power, revolt, incarceration and comeback. In the ups and downs of his long career, Mr. Anwar never gave up on his political activism or faith in his movement, Reformasi (Reform), which has finally taken him to the office that evaded him for over two decades. In last week’s elections, his coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope), emerged as the largest bloc in Parliament following which Malaysia’s King appointed the 75-year-old leader as the Prime Minister. In the 1990s, Mr. Anwar, then the Deputy Prime Minister, was seen as the obvious successor of the all-powerful Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But their differences and his calls for reform within UMNO and the government led to his downfall. He was jailed over sodomy charges, which he denies. Two jail terms later, Mr. Anwar, in 2018, joined hands with Dr. Mahathir, and managed to oust from power the UMNO, which was grappling with corruption scandals. Dr. Mahathir, who became the Prime Minister again, gave Mr. Anwar a pardon but refused to share power with him, pushing the country into political instability. But this time, Mr. Anwar is free of legal hurdles and does not face any immediate challenge to his claim to power.
The election results, however, also showed Malaysia’s polarising polity. This is the first time Malaysians voted in a hung Parliament. Mr. Anwar’s bloc (PH), which promised corruption-free governance and protection of minority rights, won 82 seats of the 222-member Assembly. Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) got 73 seats, while Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Barisan Nasional (BN) — dominated by UMNO — was defeated with its 30 seats. While the result clearly underscored growing resentment towards UMNO, it also showed the rise of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is part of the Perikatan coalition. The PAS, which won 49 seats on its own, wants a theocratic Islamic rule in Malaysia and religious interpretation of the Constitution. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mr. Anwar faces is the growing polarisation of Malaysian society. As an opposition leader, he campaigned for equality and minority rights and questioned corruption and cronyism. Now, as Prime Minister, he has to translate them into action. And he has to do so when his government would be dependent on coalition partners for majority in Parliament and at a time when Islamist forces that challenge his progressive agenda are on the rise. A tall ask indeed.