Election battle won, real test begins for new Malaysian prime minister

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim has won a hard-fought battle to become Malaysia’s new prime minister. But working with former enemies to form a government of national unity while a polarized nation watches will immediately test his political mettle.

There is no honeymoon for 75-year-old Anwar, who went straight to work less than 24 hours after being sworn in as the country’s 10th leader.

National television showed Anwar in the government capital Putrajaya on Friday morning. His first test is the composition of a cabinet and the distribution of portfolios to satisfy the diverse members of his unity government.

Anwar promised on Monday that his cabinet will be leaner compared to the previous oversized government, saying he will relinquish his salary as prime minister amid the country’s economic slowdown. He said new cabinet members would also be asked to cut their salaries.

“My number one priority right now is the cost of living,” he told a news conference.

Anwar vowed to work quickly to find ways to help Malaysians struggling with rising food costs, a currency that is at its lowest point in more than two decades and stagnant wages ahead of an expected economic slowdown next year.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, won 82 of 222 seats in the November 19 general election. To gain a majority, he won support from two main rival blocs: the long-ruling National Front, which has 30 seats, and the Sarawak Parties Alliance, which has 23. Several smaller blocs have said they will also join.

Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malaysian National Alliance unexpectedly won 73 seats. Muhyiddin’s staunch ally, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which champions Sharia, won 49 seats to become the largest party in the country, indicative of the rise of conservative Islam.

Anwar’s victory with support from political rivals marked another “turning point that ushered in a new era for Malaysian democracy,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political analyst at the University of Science, Malaysia.

It came on the heels of his alliance’s stunning victory in the 2018 polls, which ended the National Front’s 60-year hold on power and led to the country’s first regime change since independence from Britain in 1957. But the new government fell apart after the power grab that led to unrest and saw a total of three prime ministers in four years. Anwar was in jail at the time on sodomy charges, which he said were politically motivated.

Anwar maintained a conciliatory tone after his appointment, welcoming all parties to his government as long as they adhere to the basic rules of good governance, no corruption and a ‘Malaysia for all Malaysians’.

Analysts said the make-up of his cabinet will provide a clearer picture of his policies going forward as he gets to the bottom of his campaign promises to clean up the government and heal deeper racial and religious wounds. His anti-corruption platform will be put to the test amid concerns that concessions will be made to some National Front leaders fighting corruption charges in exchange for their support.

An ethnic Muslim, Anwar also needs to gain the confidence of conservative Malays, who saw him as too liberal and sided with Muhyiddin’s right-wing bloc in the controversial election. Police have tightened security and Anwar’s supporters have been told to postpone celebrations that could provoke Islamist supporters.

In such a racially charged environment, Anwar’s goals — including replacing a decades-old affirmative action plan that gives Malays privileges in jobs, education and housing — can be a minefield.

Anwar has assured Malays that their rights will be protected under the constitution and Islam’s position as the national religion. But he stressed that other races should not be marginalized so that the country can be united.

“Racial segregation has existed in Malaysia since independence,” said political analyst Ahmad Fauzi.

“Anwar will devise his own formula to contain the problem, but to think he will be able to put it out is to expect the impossible from him,” he added.

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