Commentary: First hurdle down but not all smooth sailing for PM-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim

Commentary: First hurdle down but not all smooth sailing for PM-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim

Even with the Port Dickson seat in the bag, there are more obstacles to clear before Anwar can assume the country’s top position, says one observer at the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute.

SINGAPORE: On Saturday (Oct 13), Malaysia’s so-called prime minister in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim won the Port Dickson constituency seat.

The result did not come as a surprise because the town is a Pakatan Harapan stronghold. 

Its previous candidate Danyal Balagopal Abdullah from Anwar’s party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) won the seat comfortably in a three-cornered fight against Mogan Velayatham from the then ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and Mahfuz Roslan from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).

BN’s candidate came in second, while PAS’ was third. Danyal’s margin of victory against the BN candidate was 17, 710 votes and the voter turnout was 83.2 per cent.


In this by-election, what many were interested to know was Anwar’s margin of victory because several factors seemed to have worked against him.

Not only is Anwar not from Negeri Sembilan, there were complaints by some segments of the community that the by-election was a waste of money, and could have been channelled to revive the country’s economy instead.

There were also talks of voter fatigue and rumours of tensions between Anwar and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

On the other hand, Port Dickson’s multiracial demography gave Anwar an upper hand over his opponents. In the town, Malays make up 42.7 per cent of eligible voters, Chinese 33.1 per cent and Indians 22 per cent. Indigenous communities make up the rest. PKR tends to perform better in seats with such a diverse population profile.

Anwar won 31,016 votes, with his margin of victory of 23,560 votes over the first runner-up bigger than what Danyal had achieved in May. Considering the lower voter turnout of 58 per cent, the result is encouraging for Anwar.

port dickson
A giant banner for Anwar Ibrahim’s Port Dickson campaign stands tall near a row of shophouses in the Malaysian coastal town, the day after he won a by-election here. (Photo: Justin Ong)

READ: Malaysian town 'honoured' to come under Anwar's care, but expects progress as promised


Although no huge party machinery was mobilised during Anwar’s campaign, big names came out to speak at his rallies. Minister for Finance Lim Guan Eng, Minister of Economic Affairs Azmin Ali, Minister of Defence Mohamad Sabu, Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin Yassin and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Rais Yatim were notable politicians who came out to campaign for him.

Last week, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also came down to speak at a rally, squashing any speculation of rift between Anwar and him.

Mahathir normally does not campaign for his party in by-elections even during his first stint as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 so his appearance at the Port Dickson by-election campaign is out of the norm.

However, during the rally, Mahathir spoke more about national issues and economic problems rather than about Anwar. He also urged voters to think beyond personalities, particularly for the country, and joked that Anwar owed his rise in UMNO to become a minister (in the 1980s) to him.

It was Anwar who had nothing but glowing words for Mahathir. He said that he loved Mahathir “as a father and a leader”, and that he was the “best man to lead the country now”.

While the two leaders seemed comfortable on stage together despite the awkward shared back story, the big question is whether Malaysians buy this reconciliation. The fact that Anwar had to repeat in his speeches that he had forgiven Mahathir demonstrates how sceptical voters feel about the two joining hands.

READ:  The bittersweet return of Anwar Ibrahim to Malaysian politics, a commentary

Anwar (left) and Mahathir
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) sits next to Malaysia's reform icon Anwar Ibrahim during a rally in Port Dickson on Oct 8, 2018. (File photo: AP/Vincent Thian)


Twenty years ago, Anwar was on course to be Malaysia’s fifth prime minister, but he was denied the chance. With this Port Dickson victory, Anwar is on course to be Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.

Over the next two years, it is likely that Mahathir will focus on carrying out necessary economic reforms while Anwar focuses on his role as a parliamentarian. 

Anwar still has several hurdles to cross. First, he must receive the backing of all Pakatan Harapan component parties to assume the top job.

This also depends on how the ongoing PKR internal elections will play out. While Anwar’s position in the party as president is secured, he must ensure the hotly contested and controversial race for the deputy presidency - which pits incumbent Azmin Ali, who is now a minister in Mahathir’s cabinet, against Rafizi Ramli - does not split the party.

A second issue is how long it will take before Anwar is co-opted into the Cabinet. It is unlikely that he will assume power automatically without having served in the current Cabinet. He must be given some role­, if not responsibility, to shoulder the burden of the current government’s reform agenda, for credibility.

He must not be seen passing all the load to Mahathir. Already the current government is backtracking on many promises made in the last general election, the latest being to reconsider removing highway tolls, and may be on shaky ground.

A third issue is how long Mahathir will stay as prime minister. He has denied the existence of an agreed timeline for a handover of power, and has said it may take more than the two years which many assumed.

There also has to be a careful transition. This may entail current Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is Anwar’s wife, making way for her husband. Who will then assume the deputy prime minister post once Anwar takes over?

Malaysia PM Mahathir Sep 7, 2018
Malaysia Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Ismail. (Photo: Bernama)

The person must have good chemistry with Anwar. Malaysia’s political history has shown how tensions between prime ministers and deputy prime ministers can divide the nation.


All in all, it will not be smooth sailing for PM-in-waiting Anwar. The public will now scrutinise his words closely.

What is his outlook of international relations? What are his plans to revive the economy? How will he handle the ever-tricky racial and religious politics?

He has already spoken at international forums, including here in Singapore, because there is a lot of interest in understanding how he really thinks on race and religion, and especially when we see the polarisation between conservatives and progressives.

Recent controversies such as the permissibility of khalwat raids, beer festivals and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues are tricky challenges that require clear direction from the top leader.

Sure, Anwar may be Malaysia’s prime minister in 2020, the year according to Mahathir’s vision when the country will achieve “developed” status. Yet, Malaysia in 2020 is not Malaysia in 1998, the year Anwar would have been prime minister had all things gone according to plan.

Malaysian society in 2020 will likely be a more fragmented one, and the prime minister cannot afford to pander to different segments in the community by riding on populist sentiments. He has to be clear on what he truly stands for.

Dr Norshahril Saat is a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Source: CNA/sl