March 1, 2020 / 2:48 PM / a month ago

Newsmaker: So near yet so far for Malaysia's Anwar

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Settling down for a recent interview, Anwar Ibrahim recalled his 20-year struggle to become Malaysia’s prime minister: surviving a decade in jail on sodomy charges, dealing with allegations of sex tapes and struggling with infighting in his party.

FILE PHOTO: President of the People’s Justice Party Anwar Ibrahim gives the keynote address during their general assembly in Melaka, Malaysia, December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Confident that his dream would be realised within months, he jokingly asked what might be an “auspicious” day for a swearing in.

That day looked as far off as ever on Sunday after a week of turmoil during which his alliance with old foe Mahathir Mohamad unravelled and a third candidate emerged to become prime minister as they fought over the job yet again.

“This ends his lifelong dream to be PM,” said Harrison Cheng of consultancy Control Risks.

“His coalition has a massive mountain to climb ahead of the next general election... it was hard enough fighting it while in power; it will be exponentially harder from the opposition benches.”

The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir shaped politics in the Southeast Asian country for two decades.

Their pact in 2018 at the head of a multi-ethnic coalition ended the 60-year dominance of a party that both were once part of, but tensions persisted - particularly over Mahathir’s promise to one day hand power to Anwar.

That promise appeared nullified when Mahathir resigned abruptly a week ago.

It become an impossibility once both were swept aside despite a late attempt to restore their alliance.

Anwar had tried to build a coalition to show the king that he could win a majority in parliament, but he never had enough seats without Mahathir’s support. Mahathir meanwhile failed in a bid to form a unity government that Awar rejected.

The king chose Malay nationalist Muhyiddin Yassin as the leader most likely to win majority support.

“Clearly there was treachery. But as I said, we have to move on,” Anwar told reporters.

His movement, now behind Mahathir, said it would still try to challenge Muhyiddin’s legitimacy in parliament.

FALLING OUT

Anwar joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)in 1982, soon after Mahathir became prime minister for the first time. He rose rapidly to become deputy prime minister in 1993, on course to succeed Mahathir.

He was sacked in 1998 due to differences over economic policy and emerged as Mahathir’s main opponent.

His battle cry was “Reformasi” (Reform) and he drew support from Malays tired of the old order as well as ethnic minorities. He was more liberal than Mahathir and other rivals and became a darling of the West.

But his campaign was crushed in 1999 when he was jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that he denied and said were politically motivated.

He tried to rebuild his base after being released in 2004, but was again jailed for sodomy in 2015 under then prime minister Najib Razak - now on trial for corruption.

Anwar was pardoned by the country’s king and released after the shock election win that toppled Najib in 2018.

Anwar took no official position in Mahathir’s administration, but helped to shape policies. His wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, was deputy prime minister.

Anwar faced yet more accusations of sexually assaulting a former male aide last year. The case was dropped, but his supporters saw yet another attempt to destroy him.

“I’ve had such a horrific life and experience in the past. More than 10 and a half years in prison,” he told Reuters in the interview last month. “But do I live to just reflect and clear the excess of the past, or move on? So that’s my intended interest, to move on.”

Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Andrew Heavens

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