May 11, 2018 / 11:57 AM / 2 months ago

With a little help from my friend: Malaysia's Anwar on the verge of freedom

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - When Anwar Ibrahim finally walks to freedom, it will be partly thanks to Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s second-time-around prime minister, who has admitted he played a part when Anwar was first put behind bars in 1998.

FILE PHOTO - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks to Reuters at his office in Petaling Jaya outside Kuala Lumpur August 4, 2008. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/File Photo

Mahathir, who was sworn in as the country’s leader on Thursday after winning this week’s general election, has already sought a royal pardon for Anwar and has promised to step aside for his friend-turned-foe-turned-ally to become prime minister.

The relationship between these two giants of Malaysian politics is a strange saga that has spanned three decades.

And their story may not be over.

Mahathir - at the age of 92, now the world’s oldest elected leader - is basking in the limelight after a stunning election victory that has taken him back to the prime minister’s office that he ran with an iron fist for 22 years. Many wonder if he would really be willing to give that up for his former deputy.

Anwar, 70, is the son of a hospital porter who attended one of Malaysia’s top schools, made his name as a firebrand Islamic youth leader and became a member of parliament in his mid-30s.

Mahathir invited Anwar to join the United Malays National Organisation, the main government party, in 1982 to bridge the gap between the party’s Malay nationalist image and its Islamic aspirations.

Anwar’s rise was meteoric. Mahathir named him deputy prime minister in 1993, a role he held as well as finance minister, and he was widely seen as his mentor’s successor-in-waiting.

Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

But in 1998, they disagreed on how to tackle the Asian financial crisis and fell out. Anwar was sacked, and he launched a ‘Reformasi’ (reform) movement to end UMNO’s race- and patronage-based governance that brought tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets.

Faced with a leadership challenge, Mahathir used internal security laws to detain more than 100 opposition politicians, academics and social activists. He jailed his former deputy on charges of sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia, and corruption.

Images of the goateed, bespectacled Anwar in court with a black eye and bruises brought condemnation of Mahathir from around the world. Anwar’s trial became a spectacle, with prosecutors at one stage bringing out what they said was a semen-stained mattress allegedly used when he had sex with two male aides.

JAILED AGAIN

Anwar was freed in 2004 and returned to politics as the head of a revitalized, multi-ethnic opposition centered around Islamists and secular social reformers. Mahathir, meanwhile, had retired and by 2009 the new prime minister was Najib Razak.

In 2015, Anwar was jailed again - for five years - for sodomizing a former aide, a charge he and his supporters describe as a politically motivated attempt by Najib to end his career.

In an astonishing U-turn last year, Anwar shook hands with Mahathir and agreed to join forces to oust scandal-tainted Najib and his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in a ‘Save Malaysia’ campaign.

Some of Anwar’s supporters were aghast that he was making up with his nemesis, but others said it was a shrewd move.

“It took us many years to get to this point, and if you’re not smart or wise enough to join all these forces together, we might lose the chance at wresting power from BN,” said Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah.

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Mahathir, meanwhile, promised to seek Anwar’s release if he won, and then stand down to let Anwar become prime minister.

“It’s not easy for him to agree to my role in the opposition party. It would be his role, except he is in prison,” Mahathir told Reuters in an interview in March.

The unlikely partnership, however, raised the question of what would happen to the Reformasi movement started by Anwar that brought together politicians, civil society leaders and activists wronged by Mahathir, the man they once dubbed “Mahafiraun” or the Grand Pharaoh.

Because Anwar has been in custody, his views are not known.

His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, told Reuters she was aware of the criticism from Reformasi-era supporters.

“I understand. They have been victims,” she said before the election, at which she won a parliament seat and is now set to be named deputy prime minister. “I understand how they feel because our children, our family had reservations in the beginning.”

With time off for good behavior, Anwar was scheduled to be freed in June, but by law he could not participate in politics for another five years.

The Mahathir-Anwar alliance’s stunning election win over Najib’s coalition this week has thrown that wide open because, with a royal pardon, Anwar can return to politics.

Mahathir said on Friday: “It is going to be a full pardon, which means not only pardoned, but he is released immediately and after that he will be free to participate fully in politics.”

Asked what role he would have in the cabinet, he replied cryptically: “Whether Anwar will be part of the cabinet or not will be decided when the time comes.”

Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by John Chalmers

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