From Prisoner to PM: Anwar Ibrahim’s Tortuous Road to Power in Malaysia


Anwar Ibrahim finally realised his two-decade-old dream of becoming Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday following a tortuous detour in the political wilderness that included two prison stints.

So long the runner-up of Malaysian politics, this weekend’s election was his final chance at securing the top job.

While Anwar’s progressive bloc won the most seats in parliament, it did not secure a majority. But the uncertainty ended on Thursday, when Malaysia’s king appointed Anwar, 75, to be prime minister.

Jailed For Sodomy and Corruption

Time and again, the job of prime minister had eluded Anwar, despite getting within striking distance over the years, first as deputy prime minister in the 1990s and later, as official prime minister-in-waiting, in 2018.

In between, he spent nearly a decade in jail for sodomy and corruption on charges he says were politically motivated.

The most charismatic opposition leader the southeast Asian nation has ever seen, Anwar led tens of thousands of Malaysians in street protests in the 1990s against his mentor-turned-foe Mahathir Mohamad.

Strained Relations with Mahathir Mohamad

Anwar started off as a firebrand Islamic youth leader before joining the prime minister Mahathir’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads the Barisan Nasional alliance.

Anwar Ibrahim’s strained relationship with the veteran leader shaped Anwar’s own career, as well as Malaysia’s political landscape, for nearly three decades.

Mahathir once called Anwar his friend and protege, and anointed him his successor. But later, amid sodomy charges and disagreements over how to handle the Asian financial crisis, he said Anwar was unfit to lead “because of his character”.

The two buried the hatchet briefly in 2018 to oust from power the political alliance they once belonged to – only to fall out again within two years, ending their 22-month-old government and plunging Malaysia into a period of instability.

As opposition leader – both from jail and in parliament – Anwar slowly chipped away at the might of the Barisan Nasional alliance, Malaysia’s longest ruling coalition that prioritised the interests of the majority Malays.

Key Milestones

Anwar is born to a middle-class family in Cherok Tok Kun in the northern Malaysian state of Penang in August 1947.

In 1974, he was arrested during a student protest in support of rural farmers. He spends 20 months in jail. In the early 1980s, he is admitted into the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) political party after Mahathir Mohamad becomes UMNO president and Malaysian prime minister.

During the 1990s, he became the finance minister after rising through the ranks. Two years later Mahathir names Anwar as his deputy prime minister after he helps UMNO win crucial rural Malay votes.

He was sacked on charges of sexual misconduct in 1998. He then led tens of thousands in a protest march in Kuala Lumpur but is arrested hours later at his home.

In April 1999, he was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption, triggering street protests and drawing international condemnation. The following year he is found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in prison. Malaysia’s highest tribunal, acquits Anwar of the sodomy charges and he is freed in 2004.

In 2013, Anwar leads Malaysia’s opposition to its best-ever performance in general elections but fails to muster the numbers to become prime minister. The Court of Appeal overturns Anwar’s 2012 sodomy acquittal but he remains free pending an appeal before the Federal Court, which he loses a year later. He starts serving a five-year jail term but remains active as an opposition leader while in prison.

In 2018, Mahathir comes out of retirement and teams up with the still-jailed Anwar to form an opposition alliance. Their coalition scores an upset victory in a general election and Mahathir becomes prime minister for the second time with an agreement to hand over the premiership to Anwar later. The king pardons Anwar, who is freed from jail. But Mahathir would fail to fulfill his handover pledge.

But, Mahathir resigned in 2020 after the coalition with Anwar collapses due to infighting, leaving Anwar empty-handed again. In snap elections Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition wins the most number of seats, but falls short of the required majority. A political stalemate follows as his rival also claims to have the numbers. The king intervenes to break the impasse by calling for a unity government. Anwar is appointed Malaysia’s 10th prime minister.

(With inputs from agencies)

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