KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Longtime reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday and pledged 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 have been locked in a battle with Malaysian nationalists for days after a divisive general election on Saturday produced a hung parliament.. Anwar was sworn in in a simple ceremony at the national palace which was broadcast on national television.
Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has named Anwar, 75, the country’s 10th ruler after saying he was satisfied that Anwar was the candidate likely to have majority support.
In his first press conference, Anwar said he would form a unity government comprising his Alliance of Hope which won 82 seats, the National Front with 30 seats and an East Sarawak state bloc with 23 seats. He said that would give him a majority of 135 seats, with other smaller blocs expected to join him.
“There is no doubt about my legitimacy,” Anwar said after his rival, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, disputed that he had majority support. Anwar said his government will offer a vote of confidence when parliament reconvenes on December 19.
An unexpected increase in ethnic Malay support propelled Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance to win 73 seats, with its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party becoming the largest single party with 49 seats.
The impasse was resolved after the National Front, led by the United Malay National Organization, agreed to support a unity government under Anwar. Such a rapprochement was once unthinkable in Malaysian politics, long dominated by rivalry between the two parties.
“His Royal Highness reminds all parties that not all winners win and losers do not lose all,” a statement from the palace read. Sultan Abdullah urged all opposing parties to reconcile to ensure a stable government and end the political unrest in Malaysia, which has led to three prime ministers since elections in 2018.
The stock market and the Malaysian currency surged after the announcement of Anwar’s appointment.
Police stepped up security across the country as social media posts warned of racial unrest if Anwar’s multi-ethnic bloc won. Anwar’s party has urged its supporters to refrain from festive gatherings to avoid any risk of provocation.
Anwar said he wanted his victory to bring new hope to Malaysians yearning for a fairer nation, and assured the majority of Malaysian Muslims that they had nothing to fear. He said his priority will be to strengthen the economy as it faces an expected slowdown next year and tackle rising inflation.
Many rural Malays fear losing their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting within the long-ruling UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.
“Malaysia is over six decades old. Every Malaysian, regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs or region, especially Sabah and Sarawak, should not feel like they are being ignored in any way. No one should be marginalized under my administration,” he said. Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo are among the two poorest states in the country.
Anwar declared Monday a public holiday to mark his bloc’s victory.
Anwar’s rise to the top caps his political roller-coaster ride and allays fears of further Islamization. But he faces an arduous task of bridging the racial divisions that have widened after Saturday’s poll, as well as reviving the economy. Malays make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, who include significant Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.
“Anwar is a globalist, which will reassure international investors. He was seen as a builder of bridges between communities which will test his leadership in the future, but at the same time offer a reassuring hand for the challenges that Malaysia will face,” said Bridget Welsh, policy expert in Southeast Asia at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. .
Anwar was a former deputy prime minister whose dismissal and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that became a major political force. Thursday marked his reform bloc’s second victory – the first being landmark 2018 polls that led to the ousting of UMNO and the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Anwar was in prison at the time on a sodomy charge which he said was politically motivated. He was pardoned and was to succeed Mahathir Mohamad. But the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was plagued by internal rivalry and he resigned after 17 months. UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob was later chosen by the king as prime minister.
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