Who can replace Anwar Ibrahim?

Malaysia’s opposition superstar has said he will not stand for Prime Minister. This leaves big questions, and divisions, for his coalition.

by Isabel Yeo, edited by Francesca Ross

Anwar Ibrahim has announced he will not run for prime minister in the next national leadership elections.

The imprisoned activist has been the de facto leader of the opposition coalition for some years so his announcement has come as a surprise. Members of the ruling Barisan Nasional have seized upon the news to apply pressure to his Pakatan Harapan (PH) group to now name their official prime minister-designate.

“Voters have a right to know who will be a particular coalition’s choice for prime minister should they win. This is one of the most important information a voter needs to know before making the right choice,” Tan Keng Liang, Gerakan Youth chief, said.

Anwar may have ruled himself out for the top job but the power of his endorsement to a candidate means he is still an important player. He is now the kingmaker. His public influence might begin to wane but behind the scenes, he is a man of great power.

Anwar is currently fighting for his freedom while his party bickers

Anwar is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for sodomy. Human rights groups say this is a politically motivated conviction and have been lobbying for his freedom via royal pardon. Absolution from Sultan Muhammad V would see him freed immediately. He would then be able to run for office before the end of the five-year ban given to those with a criminal conviction.

He is also mid-way through his own appeal. He has claimed corruption in the legal process is grounds to repeal his conviction. He believes senior prosecutor Muhammad Shafee Abdullah received RM9.5 million (US$2.2 million) from Prime Minister Najib. A judge of the Malaysian High Court recently ordered the government to respond to these accusations within weeks.

Mahathir Mohamad has been vying for greater influence in the opposition in Anwar’s absence. He has pledged support for the Free Anwar campaign and condemned his conviction despite a history of tensions between the two men. He has also been lobbying top opposition leaders to appoint his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) party as the central force in the PH. Opposition officials do not appreciate these moves by the former Prime Minister turned anti-government agitator.

His decision may allow a new generation of leaders to emerge

Anwar’s current incarceration is not the first time he has seen the inside of a jail cell. He has previously served time in prison and successfully returned to the forefront of Malaysian politics. He still has party support, despite his situation. This suggests his decision to step aside is entirely his own and provides an excellent opportunity for younger candidates to rise up.

This is a politically shrewd move suggested Ibrahim Suffian, Director of the Merdeka Centre. “This would energise the electorate and attract younger voters, allowing the Opposition to emulate the (France President Emmanuel) Macron or (Canadian Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau effect,” he explained.

Mahathir has tipped Muhyiddin Yassin as Anwar’s official replacement. He is a sensible choice thanks to his previous leadership experience but may struggle to establish executive control over the coalition. He is currently Mahathir’s deputy in the PPBM and some coalition members feel he may never shake the old man’s shadow. “The future prime minister [Yassin] will not have a free hand because in the new party (Pribumi), we have not only the president but also a chairman [Mahathir],” Mahathir himself said.

Azim and Yassin are regularly mentioned as replacements for Anwar

Mohamed Azmin Ali, the People’s Justice Party’s (PKR) current Deputy President and close ally of Anwar is also being touted as a prime ministerial contender. He is a good fit for the Opposition’s nomination and could be a next-generation, younger leader at just 52 years old. He has a wealth of political experience and his credentials as the PKR’s Deputy President could earn the respect of the coalition.

Yassin’s selection as the Opposition’s candidate is unlikely. The PKR is the dominant party within the Opposition and holds considerable sway over Anwar’s successor. Anwar’s own endorsement will also be key. The imprisoned politician is likely to support his close ally Azmin over his former enemy’s choice Yassin. This makes Azmin the most likely candidate for the nomination.

Mahathir formed the PPBM to challenge Anwar’s PKR for the position of the party most likely to represent Malay interests within the Opposition. This approach will almost certainly cause further tensions in the fragile coalition as Malaysia edges closer to elections which must be held in 2018 at the latest.

The hunt for a leader will intensify current divisions. If the nominee that emerges comes from the PKR then Mahathir and the PPBM would be reluctant supporters – if at all. If the nominee comes from the PPBM then PKR will feel slighted. This will play to the BN narrative that the Opposition cannot organise themselves – let alone run the country.