Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim to meet king in decades-long push to become PM

By Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, will at last be granted an audience with the king on Tuesday, a meeting his supporters hope could lead to the culmination of his decades-long quest to lead the country.

Anwar stated last month that he had majority support from lawmakers required to form a new government, but an earlier meeting was postponed because the king was in poor health.

It follows months of political instability which began when former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly resigned in February, prompting the collapse of the government. Mahathir had pledged to hand over power to Anwar, his alliance partner. Amid the chaos, the king met all 222 MPs to determine which potential leader commanded majority support, naming Muhyiddin Yassin prime minister in March.

Anwar, 73, has been on the brink of power several times during his turbulent political career, which also included almost a decade in prison over allegations including sodomy – widely described as politically motivated.

No announcement is expected on Tuesday, when the king, who plays a mostly ceremonial role, will hear Anwar’s claims. “It can go either way,” said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “He may have the numbers, he may not have the numbers. The crucial question is will the king believe him if he presents the numbers.”

The king, he added, will need to assess whether Anwar really does command a majority. A statutory declaration of support, offered by MPs, is not legally binding, added Chin, and so pledges can vary from one day to the next.

The king cannot remove a prime minister from power, but could recommend a general election if he believes they do not have majority support.

Ross Tapsell, director of Australian National University’s Malaysia Institute, said the king appeared to have been stalling over recent weeks. “[The king] has previously favoured Muhyiddin’s prime ministership in his March decision and therefore I think it would be quite amazing if he then goes and overturns that,” said Tapsell.

It was also unclear how Anwar could have secured sufficient numbers, he added.

There are doubts about Anwar’s claim to command majority, since no major party has offered a clear declaration of support. One party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, has said some of its lawmakers supported Anwar.

Some have challenged prime minister Muhyiddin’s legitimacy, pointing out that he did not earn his place as prime minister through the ballot box. Though his ruling coalition won recent Sabah state polls, which were widely seen as a referendum on his seven-month-old government, he has since admitted that election campaigning contributed to a recent rise in coronavirus cases. Muhyiddin is currently quarantining.

Malaysia not only faces a new wave of Covid-19 infections, but also an economy that has been devastated by the pandemic.

“There definitely are people who are tired of elite politicking, and old men who are party-hopping and seemingly making decisions as to what is in the best interest of their own careers, rather than having an ideological or policy position that they stick to,” said Tapsell.

Attitudes towards Anwar, he said, have also changed significantly over the years. “The man who was once seen as the reformasi activist, who was putting Malaysia on a new path of pluralistic politics and democracy is seemingly no longer that figure.” This is particularly the case among younger voters, he added, who increasingly see him as part of the old guard.