KUALA LUMPUR: Anwar Ibrahim, the almost man of Malaysian politics, finally clinched the country’s premiership after decades of waiting. Now, the reformist leader must make sure he keeps the job.
That won’t be easy in a nation that has now had four prime ministers in four years. Anwar, a former finance minister, is likely to control an unstable majority and his administration looks set to include his longtime nemesis, the graft-tainted Umno. That may prove an obstacle to policy-making and could easily bring his government down.
Anwar, 75, will also have to steer an economy that is on the most fragile of rebounds at a time of surging inflation and living costs. He will also face pressure from an opposition dominated by an increasingly popular hardline Islamic party.
The elections have opened up “multiple religious and racial faultlines” across the political landscape, said Tan Teng Boo, CEO and managing director of Capital Dynamics Asset Management Sdn Bhd in Kuala Lumpur. Anwar’s biggest task will be to “ensure that these faultlines don’t erupt”, he said.
Here are some of the challenges that Anwar and his government will confront in the months ahead:
The first test will be who gets what in Anwar’s new government under a power-sharing formula. Anwar will have to appease the majority Malays and Umno while keeping traditional coalition allies happy. That could see a bloated Cabinet as he seeks to ensure that the different parties each have roles.
“Malaysia’s new Cabinet should not be too big like the previous Cabinet,” said Awang Azman Pawi of Universiti Malaya. “Anwar needs an efficient and trusted Cabinet.”
Pakatan Harapan mentioned two deputy prime ministers in its manifesto, including one from the underdeveloped but resource-rich states of Borneo.
An Umno leader such as Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the former prime minister, or former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein might also be put forward as a deputy prime minister to help keep the party within Anwar’s government.
The strength of this alliance, and Anwar’s leadership, will be tested in a confidence vote scheduled for Dec 19, according to the new prime minister.
DAP, which holds the largest number of MPs in PH bloc and has the support of minorities, may take a back seat on Cabinet deliberations to ensure unity and to counter the polarising narrative that it is anti-Malay. During its short time in the previous federal government, DAP controlled the finance and transport portfolios.
Umno, lynchpin of former ruling bloc Barisan Nasional, is beset by infighting and there is a push to remove its president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the BN chairman. Zahid pushed for snap polls that saw BN lose significant ground in Malay-dominated regions and was instrumental in pushing for the coalition to be part of Anwar’s government.
Umno will hold its general assembly on Dec 21, which may see Zahid lose his job, a development that would create turmoil for Anwar. Zahid’s potential replacements may not be as willing to work with Anwar’s coalition.
Keeping Umno in government will also depend on the kind of Cabinet posts and policy-making input that Anwar offers its leadership.
When it was previously in government, PH cracked down on institutional corruption, going after Umno leaders. It orchestrated investigations into troubled 1MDB, which led to former prime minister Najib Razak starting a 12-year prison term for his involvement this year.
With Umno included in the new administration, it will probably push for a royal pardon for Najib, which could anger Anwar voters and allies. Any exoneration of Zahid, who faces corruption charges associated with his foundation, would pose the same problems.
And if Zahid does go to jail, he is likely to be replaced by a leader who might not want to work with Anwar.
Compromising on reforms
Anwar may have to compromise on his coalition’s manifesto and pledges for reform as he seeks to maintain his unity government. While he won’t face hurdles in carrying out welfare-oriented promises – which sound similar to those of his rivals – a pledge to eliminate racial and religious discrimination may not go down so well.
The majority Malays and indigenous communities enjoy a “special position” per the constitution, which has translated into government policies that give preferential treatment in areas such as public-sector jobs, housing and higher education.
In 2018, PH had to backtrack on a decision to ratify a key United Nations anti-discrimination treaty after opposition from Umno, raising concerns at the time that its momentum was stalling.
Malaysia’s economy is set to expand at a slower pace of 4% to 5% in 2023, compared with more than 7% this year, while economists expect the central bank to continue to raise interest rates in a bid to tame inflation.
That could prompt Anwar to take an increasingly populist stance and adopt Umno’s more generous promises of cash aid to help the country’s poorest.
“There’s a recognition that the focal point needs to be on the economy and the social fabric,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia. There will be “more attention to the social safety net and to the vulnerabilities of different communities”.
Umno had pledged to ensure every household earned more than RM2,200 a month, meaning the government would top up incomes to ensure that they reached that threshold.
If Anwar’s government takes such measures, it may delay its fiscal consolidation plan and earn the ire of credit rating firms.
The new administration will table the 2023 budget in the December Parliament session and that could well be one of the key tests of confidence. It remains unclear if Anwar’s administration will make significant tweaks to the spending plan presented in October.
PAS won the most seats in the election, taking Malay support from Umno while positioning itself as scandal-free and focused on bolstering Islam.
As the biggest opposition party, PAS is likely to campaign to limit the open sale of alcohol in Malaysia and to close gambling outlets. This could put pressure on Anwar’s moderate agenda and force his administration to offer more religious policies in education and the civil service, a strategy used by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s.
For years, PAS has pressured the federal government to allow it to implement strict Islamic laws in Kelantan and Terengganu. With the most seats in Parliament, PAS could band together with former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu and even pressure some Umno MPs to make an attempt to seize power again.