Anwar won his freedom in 100 days, but is he losing the fight?

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his allies would like to believe that he is the face of this “Malaysia Baharu”, or “New Malaysia”, and that his incarceration over a trumped-up sodomy charge fuelled public anger to vote out Barisan Nasional. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 17 — Like something out of a movie, the narrative seems pretty straightforward: Our protagonist, having been made to suffer years of injustice or torment at the hands of his captors, defies all odds and breaks free.

He then topples the regime and kicks out the corrupt leaders who imprisoned him, and is voted in as the leader of the new administration, promising “hope”, or in our context, “Pakatan Harapan.”

Except the current reality isn’t exactly what Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would have hoped for.

Yes, miracles happen and on May 9, 2018 Malaysians voted to remove Barisan Nasional, a coalition that has been in power for more than half a century, with many choosing instead to back Pakatan Harapan (PH) — a loose coalition made up of parties who started off as offshoots of other political parties like Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Parti Amanah Negara.

Anwar and his allies would like to believe that he is the face of this “Malaysia Baharu”, or “New Malaysia”, and that his incarceration over a trumped-up sodomy charge fuelled public anger to vote out Barisan Nasional.

Well, it may have had some effect, but in truth what people voted against was unchecked abuses of power and a culture of corruption. There was also the hope or promise of a better economy.

And the face for this change? None other than Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar was the face for Malaysia’s first wave of Reformasi in 1998, and the subsequent symbol of the federal opposition all the way till about 2014-2015. After that, Dr Mahathir took over and did what Anwar could never do: Unite the opposition parties.

The plan was simple: Anwar is released from prison, gets a royal pardon, someone steps down as MP in order for him to contest a seat. He wins it, becomes MP and is well on his path and mission to become the 8th prime minister.

Dr Mahathir himself has repeatedly stated that Anwar is the PM-in-waiting.

But politics is about perception, and in reality Anwar finds himself in an unenviable position; he is a free man at last, but do people want him as their next prime minister?

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has repeatedly stated that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is the PM-in-waiting. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

Dr Mahathir, as PM, is currently enjoying popularity among an overwhelming majority of civil servants and also across all ethnic groups, a survey has shown.

Independent pollster Merdeka Center said its survey earlier this month, taken near the end of Pakatan Harapan’s first 100 days in power, showed that 71 per cent of 1,160 voters polled felt “satisfied” with Dr Mahathir’s performance as PM.

As PH completes its first 100 days in power, there have been missteps along the way, and pledges which have not been fulfilled.

But under Dr Mahathir is an administration which has demonstrated its openness to criticism, and willingness to make immediate reparations for its mistakes.

And people seem to be willing to give PH the benefit of the doubt, and more time to fulfil their election promises.

Dr Mahathir did get some major things done; scrapping the highly unpopular GST as well as charging Datuk Seri Najib Razak. And PH ministers seem to be comfortable with the old man’s way of running things simply because he gets the job done.

So where does Anwar fit into Malaysia Baharu, after 100 days? Neither here nor there, to be honest.

He is struggling to find his footing in this new landscape, and is having an even tougher time convincing ordinary Malaysians that the post of prime minister should be handed to him on a silver platter.

Up till now, he has fashioned himself to be a sort of unofficial “advisor” to Dr Mahathir, posting pictures of secret meets with the latter, accompanied with captions of “fruitful discussions” and a laundry list of advice and suggestions for the PM.

When he’s not undergoing medical check-ups, Anwar is also meeting state Sultans and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, in a bid to burnish his influence with royalty.

Anwar has also won the PKR presidency uncontested, which will likely serve to legitimise his eventual claim to the PM’s post.

But is that enough?

In truth, for many Malaysians, the iconic image of Anwar the reformist is slowly fading into nostalgia.

Already within PKR and PH, there is disquiet and whispers of whether other leaders like Datuk Seri Azmin Ali should be PM instead of Anwar. The former is after all younger, clean, enjoyed a good reputation as Selangor mentri besar and has amassed a loyal following within PKR.

Which is why PKR’s party elections is as messy as it is right now, but that is a story for another time.

And I guess this is probably what keeps Anwar up at night — the fact that PH seems to be doing fine without his active participation, and whether or not he will be PM.

He has every right to be cautious; because as they say in politics, anything can happen. And for Anwar, the immediate challenge is to find his place in Malaysia Baharu.

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