KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Longtime reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday, pledging to heal a racially divided nation, fight corruption and revive an economy struggling with the rising cost of living.
His rise to the top was a victory for political reformers who spent days battling Malaysian nationalists after a divisive general election on Saturday left a hung parliament. Anwar took his oath of office in a simple ceremony at the national palace that was broadcast on national television.
Malaysia’s King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, named Anwar the country’s 10th leader after saying he is convinced Anwar is the candidate most likely to be backed by a majority.
At his first press conference, Anwar said he would form a unity government consisting of his Alliance of Hope winning 82 seats, the National Front winning 30 seats and a bloc from the eastern state of Sarawak winning 23 seats. He said this would give him a 135-seat majority, with other smaller blocs expected to join.
“There is no doubt about my legitimacy,” Anwar said after his rival, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, disputed that he has majority support. Anwar said his government will propose a vote of confidence when parliament reconvenes on December 19.
An unexpected wave of ethnic Malaysian support saw Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance win 73 seats, with its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party becoming the largest party with 49 seats.
The stalemate was resolved after the National Front, led by the United Maleys National Organization, agreed to support a government of national unity under Anwar. Such collaboration was once unthinkable in Malaysian politics, long dominated by rivalry between the two sides.
“His Royal Highness reminds all parties that the winners don’t win everything and the losers don’t lose everything,” the palace said in a statement. Sultan Abdullah urged all opposing sides to reconcile to ensure a stable government and end Malaysia’s political unrest, which has led to three prime ministers since the 2018 polls.
The stock market and the Malaysian currency rose after news of Anwar’s appointment.
Police had tightened security across the country as social media posts warned of racial problems if Anwar’s multi-ethnic bloc wins. Anwar’s party has urged supporters to refrain from celebratory gatherings to avoid the risk of provocation.
Anwar said he wishes his victory would bring new hope to Malaysians yearning for a fairer country, and assured the majority of Malaysian Muslims that they have nothing to fear. He said his priority will be to strengthen the economy as it faces an expected slowdown in growth next year and to fight rising inflation.
Many rural Malays fear that they will lose their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting in the long-ruling UMNO, many chose Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.
“Malaysia is more than six decades old. Any Malaysian irrespective of ethnicity, religious affiliation or region, especially Sabah and Sarawak, should not be made to feel that they are being ignored in any way. No one should be marginalized under my rule,” he said. Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo are among the country’s two poorest states.
Anwar declared a holiday on Monday to mark his bloc’s victory.
Anwar’s rise to the top job concludes his roller coaster political journey and will allay fears of further Islamization. But he has a big task ahead of bridging the racial disparities that widened after Saturday’s poll and reviving the economy. Malays make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s population of 33 million, including large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“Anwar is a globalist, that will assure international investors. He is seen as a bridge-builder between communities, who will test his leadership going forward, but at the same time lends a reassuring hand to the challenges Malaysia will face,” said Bridget Welsh, South East Asia political expert at Nottingham University in Malaysia. .
Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Anwar in a statement noting that the US looked forward to deepening its friendship with Malaysia.
Anwar, now 75, was a former deputy prime minister whose resignation and imprisonment in the 1990s sparked massive street protests and a reform movement that became a major political force. Thursday marked his reform bloc’s second win – the first was historic 2018 polls that led to UMNO’s impeachment and first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Anwar was in jail at the time on sodomy charges, which he said were politically motivated. He was pardoned and would take over from Mahathir Mohamad. But the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined hands with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was beset by internal rivalries and he resigned after 17 months. UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob was then chosen as prime minister by the king.