The euphoria over the elevation of Anwar Ibrahim to the top position in the nation among his supporters is understandable. After 24 years of waiting, Anwar is occupying the coveted post.
Many of his supporters have remained loyal from the time he was in Umno, and went through various trials and tribulations together with him. Many didn’t enjoy any rewards but still continued to support him.
Although I don’t wish to break the bubble, I have to say that this is not the end of the struggle either for their man or for them.
The question they and Anwar must ask is this: Can the new government – which I’d like to call the Anwar Administration – survive for five years?
Anwar now heads a government made up of his Pakatan Harapan coalition, Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, Warisan and Muda. If we add the backing of the sole MP from Parti Bangsa Malaysia and that of two independent Sabah MPs and one MP belonging to Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat, who are all GRS-friendly, it means Anwar has reached the 148 mark to have a two-thirds majority.
That’s all well and good, but will he be able to appease such a motley crew and keep them on the same page for five years?
I ask this based on the experience of the past four years and the bitterness that remains among some of his foes and foes-turned-partners.
Between the 2018 and 2022 general elections, we had three prime ministers – a first in Malaysian history.
The reason was simple: The politicians, for whatever reason, were more interested in power than in serving the people who elected them.
They had their own agendas. For instance, the group that broke away from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and joined with Malay parties which lost in the 2018 general election did so because they wanted to uphold the “rights of the Malays”.
The Sheraton Move of 2020 resulted in the PH government crumbling and Muhyiddin Yassin being appointed prime minister, at the head of a cobbled together coalition of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional, Bersatu and PAS, with backing from several Sarawak and Sabah parties.
Muhyiddin’s government collapsed after 17 months due to squabbles between Bersatu and Umno on power sharing and other related issues. When Umno threatened to pull support, Muhyiddin had no choice but to resign in favour of an Umno man taking over if he wanted to remain in power and near government resources.
And so, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a vice-president in Umno, became the accidental prime minister. His government lasted only 14 months as Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and others got him to call for elections this year, and not wait for the term to end next September.
Malaysia went through much turbulence during this period, with several major parties or personalities within the three coalition governments – especially Umno and Bersatu – pulling in different directions.
And now we have a “unity government” which consists of many parties with varied interests and individuals with different leadership styles.
We have to understand that each party has its own priorities and agendas and leaders of these parties would want to share power, not be subservient to others. I see ego clashes and jostling for their voices to be heard.
In answering the call of the Agong for a unity government, they may all want to show they exist for the rakyat, at least in the early months of the Anwar Administration (AA). But what about two years down the line? Will AA survive?
I suppose parties such as Muda, which have only one seat each in Parliament, and Warisan with three, will not be a problem to Anwar.
GPS hasn’t shown much interest in federal politics and is more concerned about Sarawak’s rights. So long as Anwar returns their rights as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 and treats Sarawak fairly, especially where allocations are concerned, he can avoid having to face too many problems from GPS.
But conflicts may arise between PH and Umno in the near future.
Umno is still reeling from the shock of the unexpected devastating defeat in GE15. After years of leading the government under the BN banner, it still feels the taste in its mouth; as such the Malay party which has known and used power and government resources for decades may find it difficult to play second fiddle to PH.
Also, Umno and PH have been bitter rivals, with Umno brandishing its “No Anwar, no DAP” policy in recent years. Now, Umno leaders will have to sit together with their despised rival DAP, and vice versa.
How long will this unity last? The bitterness between Umno and the DAP, which has been built over decades of fighting each other in elections and in Parliament, may take years to abate; then again, it may not.
Much depends on the leaderships of both parties and on Anwar’s ability to keep them working in cohesion.
We can’t forget that Umno and Anwar also have a bad history since the party, then under Mahathir, expelled him. It was under Mahathir’s administration that Anwar was jailed for sodomy.
But Anwar is the forgiving type, as demonstrated when he worked with Mahathir to wrest power from the BN in 2018. He has the unenviable task of not alienating Umno leaders and ensuring the party has a reasonable share of power. This will be very tough.
The first test of the new prime minister’s ability to please everyone, including his coalition members, will come when he unveils his Cabinet.
The fact that he plans to appoint a representative each from Umno and GPS as deputy prime minister will boost the confidence of these two coalitions in his leadership. But his colleagues in PH may be disappointed.
What happens if, say, Anwar goes on leave? Will the deputy prime minister from Umno become acting prime minister? How will PH supporters take this, especially since Umno only has 26 seats to their 82?
Also, Anwar has promised to cut down the size of the Cabinet, which means he has to be careful in how he apportions posts.
Anwar will also likely be confronted by requests from some of those in Umno facing criminal charges in the courts for his intervention. Anwar has already said he won’t interfere with the judiciary, and the public will be watching him. Will that cause the coalition to fray?
And what if some in Umno pressure Anwar to seek a pardon for former Umno president and prime minister Najib Razak?
The fact that Umno itself is divided may help him keep the AA together, at least for now. But the outcome of the Umno party elections may tell another tale. What if Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi loses and someone who prefers to align with PN becomes president? What if Hishammuddin Hussein, Ismail and Khairy Jamaluddin take charge of Umno?
The PKR president will also have to keep in mind that several states will be calling for elections mid-next year. He has to work out some arrangement with Umno and the other parties so that their contesting against each other in the state polls does not shake the federal government.
Anwar has to negotiate the danger of a fallout during the state elections, knowing that the opposition will exploit it.
Anwar will also have to contend with some leaders in the various parties pushing for certain companies or persons to be given government contracts. He will have to come up with a fair, transparent and acceptable mechanism that checks the rise of such problems.
I expect Anwar to also face huge problems from his rivals in Perikatan Nasional. Many of the leaders and members of PN feel they should have formed the government, despite the fact that PH has 82 MPs and they have 73 and therefore Anwar should be given first bite of the cherry.
Anwar, therefore, will be facing a wounded elephant.
Experience will tell him that when PAS and Umno were in opposition between 2018 and 2020, they kept creating various issues for PH, including claiming that the rights of Malays and the position of Islam were under threat.
He should expect a more vigorous articulation of this by PN, whose largest partners are the Malay-centric Bersatu and the Islamic-centric PAS. They will throw everything at him, directly or indirectly.
It is not unlikely that PN leaders will secretly work to convince Umno leaders and MPs to quit the coalition government. Some Umno MPs, we know, have shown they prefer Muhyiddin to Anwar.
PN will certainly capitalise on any mistake made or any hint of discord among the partners in the new unity government.
Anwar’s opponents will likely exploit the racial and religious faultlines that deepened during GE15. Malaysia is more polarised than ever before, although most Malaysians are peace loving. He must handle this gently but firmly, or it will come back to punch him in the next general election.
His opponents will also be watching his actions closely and even if there’s a hint of some policy disadvantaging the Malays, even if he says meritocracy is the way to go in a global economy, they will go to town with it, touting that old and false claim that Malays are under threat in their own land.
Therefore, Malaysians should not be euphoric that the days of political instability and political intrigue are over.
But I am optimistic that Anwar will be able to handle whatever comes his way, given his patience, resilience, commitment to democracy and desire for inclusiveness. And the fact that he would want to prove to the world that he is a great and successful prime minister.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.