Why Anwar’s freedom may open old wounds

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are seen in this file picture dated October 17, 1998. — Reuters pic
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are seen in this file picture dated October 17, 1998. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, May 15 — Jailed Malaysian politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is expected to be freed tomorrow after the alliance he jointly leads pulled off a surprise election win last week, although it’s increasingly unlikely that he will take over as premier anytime soon.

The Pardons Board committee is set to meet late morning on Anwar, and he may be released shortly afterward. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — Anwar’s coalition partner — is due to speak to the media in the afternoon. There will be a public party in the evening with Anwar scheduled to speak.

Anwar’s release would be a moment to celebrate for a group which laboured in Opposition for decades and faced constant pressure from those in office — he’s been jailed twice on sodomy convictions and also for abuse of power. Still, while a pardon would in theory clear the way for him to resume a political role, the move may exacerbate tension within the fledgling government.

That’s because Mahathir, 92, promised during the campaign to stand aside for Anwar once he was pardoned but is now pushing back the potential timeline by a matter of years. Failing to make room for Anwar would highlight the extent to which the durability of the coalition rests on a continued rapprochement between the two former enemies.

“There is this give-and-take that the two must abide by,” according to Sivamurugan Pandian, a professor of political sociology at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “The longer the wait the greater the animosity among Anwar’s supporters, but at the same time they understand that the unifying factor that led them to win the election was Mahathir.”

Mahathir said today that Anwar will need first to contest a parliamentary seat, and potentially then take a Cabinet role.

“In the initial stages, maybe lasting one or two years, I will have to be the prime minister and I will have to run the country,” Mahathir said via video conference to participants at a Wall Street Journal event in Tokyo.

The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir has been marked by decades of bitterness and public attacks, stemming from Mahathir’s decision during a prior stint in power to sack Anwar as his deputy amid a dispute on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis.

After he was fired in 1998, Anwar was jailed in the majority Muslim nation for committing sodomy and abusing power, charges he denied. He is currently in jail on a subsequent sodomy conviction and would require the royal pardon to bypass a five-year ban on re-entering politics.

There are already signs of tension in the four-party coalition in the election aftermath, including public squabbles over the way Cabinet posts are decided. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) grouping includes one mostly representing ethnic Malays, and one representing Chinese.

“I expect some resistance,” Mahathir said of differences related to Cabinet appointments. “So far we have been able to resolve. It is accepted that the final decision will be made by me.”

Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak last month referred to Mahathir’s coalition as a "motley collection of parties" that he said would struggle to remain united. Prior versions of the alliance — before Mahathir joined — collapsed in acrimony over ideology, and at times parties competed against each other for votes in the same districts.

Unity between Anwar, 70, and Mahathir is key to the government executing quickly on campaign promises to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax, review big-ticket infrastructure projects and cut spending.

“The reason why the public supported us is they have faith in the leadership of the Opposition to resolve some of the problems,” Mahathir said today.

“He is leader of one of the coalition parties,” he said of Anwar. “I expect him to play the same role as the leaders of the other three parties. There will be no more special powers given, excepting as is given to ministers or deputy ministers or deputy prime ministers.” — Bloomberg

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