Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in on Thursday, capping a three-decade political journey from a protégé of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad to a protest leader, convicted sodomist prisoner and opposition leader.
His appointment ends five days after the unprecedented crisis that followed the elections, but it may lead to a new state of instability with his rival, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, as he challenges him to prove his majority in parliament.
Both men failed to win a majority in Saturday’s election, but the constitutional monarch, King Sultan Abdullah, appointed Anwar after speaking to several lawmakers.
Anwar takes charge at a challenging time: the economy is slowing and the country is divided after a tight election pitted Anwar’s progressive coalition against Muhyiddin’s predominantly conservative ethnic Malay alliance.
Markets jumped at the end of the political impasse. The ringgit posted its best day in two weeks and stocks rose 3%.
Mark Lord announced Malaysia’s election to CNN in 2018
Anwar, 75, has been repeatedly denied the premiership despite having come close over the years: he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and prime minister-in-waiting in 2018.
In between, he spent nearly a decade in prison for sodomy and corruption on what he says are politically motivated charges intended to end his career.
Uncertainty over the election threatened to prolong political instability in the Southeast Asian country, which has had three prime ministers in as many years, and threaten to delay policy decisions needed to boost an economic recovery.
Anwar’s supporters expressed hope that his government would prevent a return of historical tension between ethnic Malays, majority Muslims, and Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.
“All we want is moderation in Malaysia and Anwar represents that,” said a communications manager in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to be given her last name Tang.
“We can’t have a country divided along the lines of race and religion because that would set us back another 10 years.”
Anwar told Reuters in a pre-election interview that he would seek to “ensure good governance, fight corruption and rid this country of racism and religious fanaticism” if he is appointed prime minister.
His coalition, known as the Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in Saturday’s vote with 82, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan National Bloc won 73. They needed 112 – a simple majority – to form a government.
The long-ruling Barisan bloc won just 30 seats – the worst electoral performance for an alliance that has dominated politics since independence in 1957.
On Thursday, Barisan said she would not support a government led by Muhyiddin, but made no mention of Anwar.
Muhyiddin, after appointing Anwar, asked Anwar to prove his majority in parliament.
Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the Malaysian Islamic Party, whose electoral gains have caused concern among members of the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities, most of whom adhere to other faiths.
Authorities warned after the weekend’s vote of rising racial tension on social media, and short-form video platform TikTok said it was on high alert for content that violated its guidelines.
Social media users have reported several TikTok posts since the election that cited riots in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on May 13, 1969, in which some 200 people were killed, days after opposition parties backed by ethnic Chinese voters invaded the election.
Police asked social media users to refrain from “provocative” posts and said they were setting up 24-hour checkpoints on roads across the country to ensure public peace and safety.
The decision regarding the prime minister came to King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, after both Anwar and Mohiuddin missed the Tuesday afternoon deadline to form a ruling coalition.
The constitutional monarch plays a largely ceremonial role, but he can appoint a prime minister who he believes will have a majority in parliament.
Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy in which monarchs are chosen in turns from the royal families of nine states to rule for five years.
As prime minister, Anwar will have to tackle spiraling inflation and slowing growth as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, while easing ethnic tensions.
The most pressing issue will be next year’s budget, which was tabled before elections were called but has yet to be passed.
Anwar will also have to negotiate agreements with MPs from other blocs to ensure he can retain majority support in parliament.
“Anwar is set at a crucial juncture in Malaysian history, where politics is most divisive, as he recovers from a depressed economy and bitter Covid memory,” said James Chai, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“Always seen as the man who can unite all warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar has emerged at a divisive time.”