The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Malaysian politician was jailed and denounced. He now is on the cusp of power.

Anwar Ibrahim speaks to backers after winning the Oct. 13 Port Dickson by-election for a seat in Malaysia’s Parliament. (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — In many countries, Anwar Ibrahim would have been seen as a political pariah long ago.

He was jailed twice in the past two decades on accusations widely believed to have been engineered by his opponents. The current prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, ousted Anwar in the late 1990s when he was the elder statesman’s deputy. 

But when it comes to shifting political fortunes, Malaysia is no ordinary nation.

Political figures have fallen hard, and some have bounced back even stronger. A case in point is Anwar, who may be the country’s heir apparent.

Anwar is seen as just a step away from replacing the 93-year-old Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and then regained the office in May after a campaign that included a promise to hand power to Anwar within two years.

Anwar’s rise comes as the country faces critical decisions — righting its debt-burdened economy; taking steps on human rights, such as abolishing the death penalty; and trying to stand up to China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.

“There was a powerful sense that we were making history,” said Fahmi Fadzil, a member of Parliament and the strategic communications chief of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party. “Anwar: from deputy prime minister to political prisoner, and now on the cusp of the prime ministership.”

But — in a sign of the political plotting also common in Malaysia — opponents may be continuing to work behind the scenes to upset Anwar’s ambitions yet again, analysts say.

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The future of the hodgepodge coalition governing Malaysia is at stake. Washington and Beijing — among others — are watching closely. Neither wants another spate of political friction in Malaysia.

China wants to get back to making major investments in Malaysia and calm its quarrels with Mahathir and his allies. The United States, one of Malaysia’s top trading partners, seeks to maintain its commercial links in Southeast Asia as a buffer against China’s ambitions.

This month, Anwar took an important step toward power. He glided to victory in a by-election in the seaside town of Port Dickson and was sworn into Parliament on Oct. 15. 

It was a surreal turn of events.

Anwar, 71, was dismissed by Mahathir in 1998 and later jailed in Kuala Lumpur for corruption and sodomy after trials widely seen as politically motivated. He was also later jailed under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who allegedly stole billions from Malaysia.

Najib’s alleged corruption was so egregious that it prompted a remarkable reunion. Mahathir came out of retirement to team with Anwar and lead the opposition to victory in the May elections. 

On Thursday, Najib and two top government officials were charged with misappropriating state funds — new allegations on top of previous corruption counts already filed against the former prime minister.

Meanwhile, Anwar is flexing his political muscles as if in a hurry for the promised transfer of power.

Although he is a backbencher in Parliament, Anwar met with senior Communist Party leaders in Beijing this week, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. 

They “hope to strengthen ties between Malaysia and China,” he tweeted.

Critics say his moves to secure political prominence are counterproductive while Mahathir faces mammoth tasks, including securing corruption charges against Najib and others in the previous government.

Mahathir also has moved to cancel or renegotiate Chinese projects worth billions, some rife with accusations of corruption, and his government has freed ethnic Uighur Muslims detained under the previous administration and sent them to Turkey — angering Beijing, which wanted them returned to China. 

Anwar continues to battle widespread rumors that Mahathir still opposes his ascension to the prime ministership and is working behind the scenes to thwart it.

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“Of course, there are questions raised . . . on whether there are people conniving on the sidelines to try to frustrate this,” Anwar told The Washington Post in a recent interview at his party’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. “Of course, this is politics. I’m aware of some of these measures, but I don’t think I am unduly concerned.”

When Mahathir decided to return to politics this year, Anwar had to watch events unfold from his prison cell. He was released later in May.

“It was painful for me [and my family],” Anwar said in the interview. “It was very emotional, and very tough.” 

But, he said, “Mahathir took the initiative to come and see me, and then we started discussions.” 

The elder statesman, he said, was “preoccupied” with changing the government and ousting Najib, who is at the center of a multibillion-dollar graft scandal involving a state fund.

“Without our effort together to collaborate on this,” Anwar said, both men realized that they “may not succeed.” 

Since those groundbreaking meetings, however, tensions have resurfaced.

“Their relationship still looks strained and forced, much like in the months leading up to the showdown in 1998,” said Oh Ei Sun, a Malaysian political analyst. 

Mahathir also has tried to wiggle out of the two-year timeline to hand power to Anwar, and continues to be coy whenever the question of succession is raised. In an interview with The Post, he promised that Anwar will take his place, but he has declined to specify a date. 

That has “fed the sense of conspiracy and insecurity that are part of the culture here,” said Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics at John Cabot University in Rome. “There’s a history of this — you can’t assume that it is going to be a smooth transition.”

Anwar insists that he will not take a cabinet role and is happy to support Mahathir without pushing for a succession timeline. 

China, he said in an interview later with Nikkei Asian Review, wants to meet with him to “know what the future is like” under his leadership. 

“If I have waited 20 years, I’m sure I can wait a bit more,” he added with a laugh. “But the other way you can say it is, I have waited long enough.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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