Anwar Declaration as Malaysia’s Ninth PM: Another (Failed) September Surprise?

Anwar Ibrahim claims that he has enough political support to be the country’s next prime minister. The key here is whether he can assure the Malay-Muslim majority that their rights will not be undermined.

Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (C) beside Wan Azizah (4th L), his wife and former Malaysian deputy prime minister, outside his home in Kuala Lumpur on February 26, 2020. The PKR president announced on Wednesday that he has garnered a “strong” parliamentary majority to replace Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan, AFP)
Norshahril Saat

Norshahril Saat

Mohd Faizal Musa

Mohd Faizal Musa

24 September 2020

Six months after the Malaysian general election in March 2008, Anwar Ibrahim declared that he had enough support to be prime minister on 16 September. His pledge failed to materialise, and Abdullah Badawi stayed on as the country’s leader. Twelve years on, Anwar has pulled another September surprise. Yesterday he held a press conference and announced – again – that he has mustered enough majority support in Parliament. He said that his government will be stronger than the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) one headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, which only has a two-seat majority. Will this finally be Anwar’s moment? The jury is still out.

Until the storied “Sheraton Move” that toppled Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition in February, the plan was for Anwar to succeed Mahathir as prime minister. True to form, Anwar’s latest announcement is part of an intricate plan to claim the country’s top political post. But since Anwar has chosen not to disclose who his supporters are until he has an audience with the King (Yang Di-pertuan Agong), there are still many imponderables. A long list of scenarios are possible; more importantly, the critical key is whether he can garner enough Malay support.

The political roller coaster that Malaysians have ridden in the past six months shows that the process is not as straightforward as Anwar naming himself as the country’s next prime minister at a press conference.

The timing of Anwar’s announcement caught many by surprise. It came as the country is battling the Covid-19 pandemic, which has impacted the economy and jobs. Moreover, parties in the PN coalition have recently cooperated to win back-to-back by-elections, including the landslide Slim River victory last month. Why would the PN parties change this winning formula? Moreover, the narrative of Malay-Muslim supremacy is the natural glue holding the PN coalition together – the concept also resonates among the Malays. They may not be in favour of Anwar’s brand of multiculturalism. In the last Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) congress, this narrative was trotted out again to shore up support at the grassroots. In fact, the reason why PN was formed was because Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) was deemed to be under the tutelage of the Chinese-dominated and secularist Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Anwar did not reveal who is supporting him, apart from the fact that Mahathir and some PKR “defectors” are not in the list. As such, one can only speculate as to how Anwar may actually pull this through. One possibility is that some United Malays National Organisation (Umno) members could have jumped ship. Anwar was, after all, the former Umno deputy president during Mahathir’s first spell as prime minister. Umno is not a homogeneous party, and it is possibly split into three or four camps. In recent months, party leaders have also issued conflicting statements. For example, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has said that Umno should recover the seats it lost to Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Some Umno MPs also are facing corruption charges and being tried in court. Its former president Najib Razak has been found guilty, and he is appealing to overturn the verdict. Another group of disgruntled Umno leaders have not been given key positions in the Muhyiddin cabinet, even though Umno is the largest party in PN. So in theory, Anwar can form the next government if one of these disgruntled groups supports him. This, however, throws up several questions: whether Anwar’s PKR party can accept this, especially if the group that supports him are undergoing cases in court. While the DAP has pledged support for Anwar, whether it can accept this group of potential Umno defectors remains questionable.

The second possibility involves Anwar and his supporters quitting the PH coalition and forming a coalition with some MPs from the current PN. This is an even more drastic move compared to the first – indeed, it would be tantamount to a betrayal of the DAP and Parti Amanah Negara, which have supported Anwar through thick and thin. But Anwar said that his majority is derived from support from MPs across different parties. Granted, friction within PH happened earlier this year, when the DAP and Amanah did not outrightly reject Mahathir’s suggestion for Shafie Apdal to be its prime minister candidate instead of Anwar. But if he is not allied to DAP and Amanah, Anwar will likely work with Umno, PAS and some Sarawak-based parties. The latter, however, have denied supporting him. The Sarawak-based parties may not be keen to be in a coalition together with the DAP. Similarly, PAS would not join a coalition with Amanah and DAP.

The political roller coaster that Malaysians have ridden in the past six months shows that the process is not as straightforward as Anwar naming himself as the country’s next prime minister at a press conference. Similar to how Muhyiddin was appointed in March, the King may have to look at all statutory declarations of MPs, and even interview all of them individually to determine who they support. As Mahathir may well remind us, the show of support could well change at the Istana Negara, when the seasoned political operator found out that PH had decided not to name him as prime minister.

The King may also decide to call for an election. This is a risky option given the current pandemic situation, and a costly one. Whatever happens, the ensuing days will be exciting for Malaysia again, as politicians may yet be forced to make a stand. Yet, as this is not the first time Anwar has made such an announcement, many MPs will choose to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. The key to Anwar making good on his parliamentary majority claim is his ability to address Malay-Muslim sentiment, which remains strong in the community. Anwar must assure this group that their rights will not be undermined. For Muhyiddin, it appears to be business as usual for now, given that he has announced economic packages to help Malaysians ride through the Covid-19 pandemic. The ball is in Anwar’s court.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Dr Mohd Faizal Musa is a Visiting Fellow at the same institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/147

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.