Anwar, Malaysia’s Impatient Premier in Waiting

Anwar Ibrahim, the internationally-known polar star of the opposition to the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition brought down in May 9 elections, has come under growing criticism for revoking his decision to wait two years before re-entering Malaysian politics.

His reentry could invalidate the years he has spent in the political wilderness and prison.

Anwar, now 71, was jailed a second time in January 2015 for five years on sexual perversion charges that were universally perceived as designed to keep him imprisoned and out of politics. His detention, regarded as martyrdom by his followers, was a major rallying cry for the May election landslide

However, his reentry into politics has been widely condemned because it is taking place in Port Dickson, a sleepy town 90 km south of Kuala Lumpur, where a retired rear admiral named Danyal Balagopal Abdullah appears to have been dragooned into relinquishing his seat to trigger a by-election that Anwar first seemed certain to win, raising criticism that instead of martyred hero, he is power-hungry and impatient.

"Why are we surprised? It has always been about Anwar,” a critic said on social media. “When he was asked about the division in his party, he said that there were no camps. There was only one camp, Anwar's camp."

The move has been widely condemned because it has reflected badly, not just on Anwar, his family and Danyal but also Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail, deputy prime minister and member of parliament for the Pandan constituency in Selangor. With his daughter, Nurul Izza, also in parliament, that has raised concerns over nepotism among an electorate fed up with nepotism, corruption, cronyism and arrogance from the Barisan.

Port Dickson is a garrison town heavily populated by the military. One former soldier, who declined to be named said, "We are just being used as Anwar's stepping stone into parliament. We are not that easily fooled."

Today, Anwar is accused of being impatient instead of setting out to heal a leadership rift between party Secretary-General Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali, the economics minister in the new government. Instead, his critics say, he has disregarded mending his party to enter a race for the premiership now held by the nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad, who led a scorched-earth campaign to get rid of the Barisan and its lead party, the United Malays National Organization. Mahathir, who left UMNO in fury, heads the newly minted Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia in addition to heading the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which took over the government in May.

Anwar said soon after his release that he would spend two years lecturing at western universities and in some Muslim countries. The agreement was that if Mahathir won, he would abdicate the premiership after two years. That was the time allotted for a smooth transition.

Disillusioned Malaysians gave Mahathir the mandate to rule. They were prepared to give him a second chance to rectify many of his own wrongs during his 22 year reign, which ended in 2003 and which critics say generated many of the problems that exist in Malaysia today.

Earlier promises that members of Anwar's family would vacate their seats for Anwar have not been kept. Instead Danyal drew the short straw. There have been allegations that Danyal will be rewarded, but these have been denied. Both Wan Azizah and Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah have aggressively asserted Anwar’s right to be prime minister, and indeed to have three members of the family in parliament.

The power struggles between the two factions in PKR increased when Azmin, an economics and mathematics graduate of the University of Minnesota in the United States, came to be regarded as groomed by Mahathir, which was not acceptable to the opposing camp of Rafizi and Anwar's wife and daughter.

Should the 93-year-old Mahathir fall ill or die, Wan Azizah is in line to become Prime Minister, which is regarded as unacceptable. The public is aware that she is Anwar's seat warmer, which she has acknowledged. She is also regarded as indecisive by the public, having failed to defend the rights of women and children, as was highlighted in recent cases involving the marriage of a 11-year-old girl and a 41-year-old man, and a second between a 15-year-old girl and a 45-year-old man.

Azmin is seen to be capable, at least in Mahathir's eyes. He was given the job of Minister for Economic Development, a new portfolio with far-reaching powers. Having proven himself by running Selangor, the most productive and richest Malaysian state, as chief minister, Azmin has demonstrated able leadership should Mahathir vacate the seat. Non-Malay, non-Muslim leaders – Chinese or Indian –are unacceptable given political reality and the numerical superiority of Malays in the population.

To many, Anwar, is a spent force. A spellbinding orator, he litters his speeches with quotes from books on philosophy, the Quran and the Bible, but many doubt his ability to govern beyond that. Nonetheless, he has been given high marks internationally for his term as finance minister under Mahathir from 1991 to 1998, when Mahathir fired him for attempting to follow International Monetary Fund advice to allow the ringgit, the country’s currency, to float freely. The bigger concern is that he has not publicly ruled out a merger with UMNO, now in a state of complete collapse, its leader, Najib Razak, in the dock on charges of having stolen the equivalent of US$681 million from the scandal-scarred 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

The impatient prime-minister-in-waiting may have to deal immediately with Azmin, who will undoubtedly stand in his path to the premiership. Anwar has already warned his party that dissenters and the disloyal will be punished. PKR's internal polls will soon be held and he reminded party members to vote for leaders loyal to the struggle. Ironically, Anwar urged the party to reject those with self-interest.

Allegations have arisen that the former Minister of Finance, who is also part of Mahathir's Council of Elders, Daim Zainuddin stated that Anwar should not be made PM. That statement may be immaterial, but Malaysians remember Anwar for his role in the increasing Islamization of the nation's universities, schools and civil service. They fear his close ties with Turkey's President Recep T Erdogan and most of all, they recall that in his Malaysia Day speech, he did not mention anything about stopping the rising tide of conservative Islam in Malaysia.

Recently Anwar spoke at the Singapore Summit, a gathering of business leaders, in which he sounded moderate, inclusive and a man of the people. Malaysians are quick to dismiss this and remember that Najib portrayed himself as a moderate when he was overseas, but allowed the extremists free reign at home.

So, will Anwar use the power struggles within his own party to grab the premiership and continue with his Islamist agenda? There is considerable concern over those issues.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based reporter and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.