Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim is a free man just one week after his coalition’s shock election win and after more than three years in jail. Still, while it clears the way for him to return to politics, it’s unlikely he will take over as premier anytime soon.
Anwar walked late morning from a hospital where he’d been receiving treatment, and was pardoned by the king for his past. He met with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — his partner in the ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance — and Anwar’s party plans a public celebration tonight.
His release comes just a day before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan begins.
There were cheers and shouts of jubilation outside the hospital as a smiling Anwar appeared, flanked by large numbers of police and security officials. Wearing a suit, he touched his heart before waving and getting into a car alongside his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is deputy prime minister and also president of their People’s Justice Party, or PKR.
Speaking at a briefing later outside his house in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar said he had thanked Mahathir, his former bitter enemy, for his help getting released.
“When you are incarcerated you realise what is the meaning and significance of freedom,” Anwar said. “There is a new dawn for Malaysia.”
Anwar said he backed Mahathir as premier and would not insist on any timeframe for a handover of power. Asked about their past feuds, he said “I have forgiven him,” adding “why should I harbor malice against him?”
“My position is to give him all the support necessary to allow him to ensure that the agenda for reform, the changes that need to be done, can be carried out,” he said. “It’s not a one man show. It’s a decision to be made by a team of leaders from Pakatan Harapan, with Dr M who is the chief steward in the entire process.”
Anwar added he planned to rest and carry out some speaking commitments at universities. “I think I need that time, that space.”
His release is a moment to celebrate for a group which labored in opposition for decades and faced constant pressure from those in office —he’s been jailed twice and also for abuse of power. And his initial comments may ease, at least for now, early tensions within the fledgling government.
Mahathir, 92, promised during the campaign to stand aside for Anwar once he was pardoned but is now pushing back the potential timeline by a matter of years.
That highlights the extent to which the durability of the coalition rests on a continued rapprochement between the two former enemies.
“Anwar realises that for Pakatan Harapan to stay united and strong, he shouldn’t interfere or meddle in affairs at the moment,” said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “He has to take an outsider role, and give possible advice — becoming an elder statesperson.”
Mahathir has indicated any power shift will take time.
“In the initial stages, maybe lasting one or two years, I will have to be the prime minister and I will have to run the country,” he said.
The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir has been marked by decades of bitterness and public attacks, stemming from Mahathir’s decision during a prior stint in power to sack Anwar as his deputy amid a dispute on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis. After he was fired in 1998, Anwar was jailed in the majority Muslim nation for abusing power, charges he denied.