KUALA LUMPUR – Long-time reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia's prime minister Thursday and vowed to heal a racially divided nation, fight corruption and revive an economy struggling with the rising cost of living.
His rise to the top a was a victory for political reformers who were locked in a battle with Malay nationalists for days after a divisive general election on Saturday produced a hung Parliament. Anwar took his oath of office in a simple ceremony at the national palace that was broadcast on national television.
Malaysia's king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, named Anwar as the nation's 10th leader after saying he was satisfied that Anwar is the candidate who is likely to have majority support.
In his first news conference, Anwar said he would form a unity government comprising his Alliance of Hope that won 82 seats, the National Front with 30 seats and a bloc from eastern Sarawak state with 23 seats. He said that would give him a majority of 135 seats, with other smaller blocs expected to join.
“There is no question about my legitimacy," Anwar said after his rival, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, disputed that he has majority support. Anwar said his government will propose a vote of confidence when Parliament reconvenes Dec. 19.
An unexpected surge of ethnic Malay support propelled Muhyiddin’s right-leaning National Alliance to win 73 seats, with its ally Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party emerging as the biggest single party with 49 seats.
The stalemate was resolved after the National Front, led by the United Malays National Organization, agreed to support a unity government under Anwar. Such a tie-up was once unthinkable in Malaysian politics, long dominated by rivalry between the two parties.
“His Royal Highness reminds all parties that the winners do not win all and the losers do not lose everything,” a palace statement said. Sultan Abdullah urged all opposing parties to reconcile to ensure a stable government and end Malaysia's political turmoil, which has led to three prime ministers since 2018 polls.
The stock market and the Malaysian currency surged following news of Anwar's appointment.
Police had tightened security nationwide as social media posts warned of racial troubles if Anwar’s multiethnic bloc won. Anwar's party has urged supporters to refrain from celebratory gatherings to avoid risk of provocation.
Anwar said he wishes his victory will bring new hope for Malaysians longing for a more equitable nation, and assured majority Malay Muslims that they have nothing to fear. He said his priority will be to strengthen the economy as it faces an expected slowdown next year and fight rising inflation.
Many rural Malays fear they may lose their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting in the long-ruling UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.
“Malaysia is more than six decades old. Every Malaysian regardless of ethnicity, religious belief or region, particularly Sabah and Sarawak, should not be left to feel that they are ignored in any way. None should be marginalized under my administration," he said. Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island are among two of the country's poorest states.
Anwar declared Monday a public holiday to mark his bloc's victory.
Anwar’s rise to the top job caps his roller-coaster political journey and will ease fears over greater Islamization. But he faces a tall task in bridging racial divides that deepened after Saturday’s poll, as well as reviving the economy. Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
“Anwar is a globalist, which will assure international investors. He has been seen to be a bridge builder across communities, which will test his leadership moving forward but at the same juncture offers a reassuring hand for the challenges that Malaysia will face,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia political expert at Malaysia's Nottingham University.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered his congratulations to Anwar in a statement noting the U.S. looked forward to deepening its friendship with Malaysia.
Anwar, now 75, was a former deputy prime minister whose firing and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that became a major political force. Thursday marked his reformist bloc's second victory — its first being historic 2018 polls that led to UMNO's ouster and the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
Anwar was in prison at the time on a sodomy charge he said was politically motivated. He was pardoned and was due to take over from Mahathir Mohamad. But the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined hands with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was beset by internal rivalries and he resigned after 17 months. UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob was then picked by the king as the prime minister.