Malaysian democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim has once again been reassured that he will eventually become prime minister, even as his own People’s Justice Party (PKR) suffers from internal divisions and continued infighting.
In May, the Pakatan Harapan coalition – made up of PKR, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), National Trust Party (Amanah), and the Democratic Action Party – succeeded in toppling Barisan Nasional, the former ruling alliance, in an unprecedented electoral victory.
As part of Pakatan Harapan’s coalition agreement, current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad promised to some day step aside and make way for Anwar, who is president of the PKR but could not participate in the general election due to a 2015 conviction for sodomy that he maintains was politically motivated. He was freed and received a royal pardon days after the polls.
During Bersatu’s annual general assembly last weekend, Mahathir reiterated that “a promise is a promise”, after a delegate suggested that the 93-year-old should remain in post until the next election in five years time.
Mahathir told party delegates that he was only meant to be a temporary prime minister and, while he was aware of his widespread support and calls to remain, one of the coalition’s conditions of unity was that “their former enemy can only [be] prime minister as a temporary measure”.
The veteran politician previously held the top job from 1981 to 2003, although he was then with current opposition party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) which he quit in 2016. During this period, Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy for a time, but the two fell out leading to Anwar’s sacking and being charged with sodomy for the first time.
Mahathir’s reassurances comes after months of rumour-mongering and intense speculation surrounding his plans for the succession, which he previously said would happen in “two years, maybe more, maybe less” without providing specifics.
This uncertainty has resulted in frenzied jockeying for power both within the PKR, which forms Pakatan Harapan’s largest parliamentary bloc, and among the opposition.
Inside the PKR, warring factions have formed: one headed by Azmin Ali, the economic affairs minister and Anwar’s former personal secretary; the other by Anwar’s current favourite Rafizi Ramli. The two battled it out for the role of party deputy in controversial internal polls that saw complaints of vote rigging, vote buying, and violence. Azmin retained the position, but after Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah quit as vice-president citing disillusionment with the party, Rafizi was handed her old job.
Rumours have flown that Azmin has his eyes on the premiership and is seeking to snatch it from Anwar’s grasp at the last moment, a suggestion that was bolstered when photos of him holidaying with Umno strongman Hishammuddin Hussein in Morocco surfaced earlier this week.
Hishammuddin, a former defence minister, is one of several opposition members of parliament who observers believe may jump ship to Bersatu in an attempt to broaden the party’s parliamentary heft. Bersatu currently holds just 16 of the 222 parliamentary seats.
Azmin and Anwar have engaged in a verbal tussle over Rafizi’s appointment, with the former calling for it to be reviewed – saying in a statement that appointments should be merit based and not political rewards or bribes. In response, Anwar urged Azmin to use the proper channels to air his grievances instead of going to the media, telling reporters that he had to be inclusive of both factions.
Political scientist Awang Azman Awang Pawi of the University of Malaya said the internal tussles were inextricably linked to the question of succession: Mahathir has appointed several members of Azmin’s faction to his cabinet, giving them power and causing Anwar to fear for his own position.
“The appointment of Rafizi serves as a check and balance to ensure PKR is not dominated by Azmin’s supporters alone, as that could threaten Anwar’s position as party president and prime minister. Azmin’s faction has been increasingly critical of Anwar in recent times,” he said.
“However, it is incorrect to assume that Anwar cannot control his party because of this unrest. He has the grass roots, supporters earned over the years when he was opposition. The ideal of reformist politics in Malaysia that Anwar embodied will not be forgotten.”
While he waits to be handed the top job, it looks like Anwar’s biggest challenge will be maintaining the integrity of PKR so as not to jeopardise the larger coalition and potentially be seen as a destabilising force.