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Anwar Ibrahim wins Port Dickson by-election in triumphant return to Malaysian politics

Anwar’s fortunes have taken a remarkable turn, going from jailed opposition leader to receiving a royal pardon in May – and he is now poised to succeed Mahathir as prime minister

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 11:37pm

Malaysian democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim is one step closer to assuming the role of prime minister in 2020 after winning the Port Dickson by-election with 31,016 votes, a 23,560-vote majority. He will take his place as a government backbencher in the next parliamentary meeting, which resumes on Monday.

Figures from the Election Commission showed he got more than 71 per cent of the total votes cast.

The Port Dickson by-election was engineered last month when incumbent Danyal Balagopal Abdullah, a member of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), stepped down to make way for Anwar’s bid to re-enter active politics.

“I am happy with the results. Allah bless us all,” Anwar said after the victory.

“This to my mind is an important milestone, a vote of confidence for the government and the reform agenda, and the prime minister personally.”

The former deputy prime minister has seen his fortunes take a remarkable upswing, going from jailed opposition leader to receiving a royal pardon in May after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led Pakatan Harapan to an unprecedented electoral win, deposing former coalition Barisan Nasional after 61 years of rule. Before the general election, the component party heads of Pakatan Harapan had agreed that in 2020 Mahathir would step down to make way for Anwar as premier.

Anwar is, observers say, the only obvious candidate that could succeed Mahathir. However, there is concern that warring factions within Anwar’s own party will cause instability within the new government, as well as the rumoured rivalry between Anwar and his mentor-turned-foe-turned-ally, Mahathir, who sacked Anwar as his deputy during his first round as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

A government backbencher who is also prime minister-in-waiting could serve to create power struggles within parliament.

“Anwar must be in cabinet, either replacing his wife [Wan Azizah Wan Ismail] as deputy prime minister or heading a parliamentary committee or special task force with ministerial status. He needs to be in the government, which can be done without pushing aside Mahathir. His talk to be a backbencher is a recipe for disaster,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat, of state-funded think tank Penang Institute.

Although backbenchers are traditionally permitted to outshine or even replace frontbench colleagues, a prime minister-in-waiting criticising the government from the backbench could potentially be interpreted as the building of a second, alternative power centre.

In the months to come, barring Anwar shooting himself in the foot, his popularity will rise
Wong Chin Huat, political scientist

“He would have only himself to blame if such perception eventually becomes an obstacle to his return,” Wong said.

Awang Azman, an associate professor with University Malaya’s Academy of Malay Studies, said some members of Pakatan Harapan were “very afraid” of Anwar’s return to politics, particularly given his planned ascendance to premiership.

“They’re also afraid that their position and power will be replaced by Anwar and Anwar will pick his own loyal people instead to take their place,” he said.

Currently, Anwar loyalist Rafizi Ramli and Economic Affairs minister Azmin Ali are both vying for the role of PKR deputy president, separating the party into two camps. Anwar is believed to be backing Rafizi, although the party has strenuously denied any internal split.

Despite rampant speculation that some quarters are poised to block Anwar’s path to premiership, Anwar’s solid electoral win with a near 60 per cent voter turnout and subsequent seat at the Parliamentary table afford him legitimacy.

“He is the only obvious candidate to succeed Mahathir. Any other candidates – Azmin is the most likely one – will only invite more objection and uncertainty. As long as Anwar refrains from challenging Mahathir to expedite his ascendance and avoids alienating the public – who have become more demanding and critical of politicians – Anwar’s smooth succession is best for political stability in Malaysia,” Wong said.

Both political and economic players will invest in Anwar, or at least split their investment between him and Mahathir.

“In the months to come, barring Anwar shooting himself in the foot, his popularity will rise,” Wong said.

Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim campaign together for the first time in 20 years

However, Anwar must now decide on his platform: before the electoral win, Anwar’s stance as a largely liberal reformist won him political traction. However, the Mahathir-led government has begun reforms on many aspects, from domestic legislation to human rights matters, removing Anwar’s unique selling point.

“The prime minister-in-waiting needs to undertake some reform while waiting to boost his standing as a reformist,” Wong said. “This might be reforming the National Economic Policy, or right-sizing the bureaucracy, but Anwar must do it without rocking the boat – hence a test of his political savvy and statecraft.”