Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim is a free man after more than three years in jail, receiving a royal pardon after his coalition’s shock election win last week. Still, it’s unlikely he will take over as premier anytime soon.
Anwar walked late morning from a hospital where he’d been receiving treatment, and was pardoned shortly afterward by the King for a sodomy conviction.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad—Anwar’s coalition partner—is due to speak mid-afternoon to the media, and Anwar’s party has planned a public celebration on Wednesday evening which he would attend.
There were cheers and shouts of jubilation outside the hospital as a smiling Anwar appeared, flanked by large numbers of police and security officials.
Wearing a suit, he touched his heart before waving at a scrum of reporters and photographers and getting into a waiting car alongside his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is deputy prime minister and also president of the People’s Justice Party, or PKR.
It comes just a day before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan begins.
“What better way to greet Ramadan,” his daughter Nurul Izzah posted on Instagram. “A pardon based on a miscarriage of justice, a separation met with an eventual embrace.”
Anwar’s release is a moment to celebrate for a group, which labored in opposition for decades and faced constant pressure from those in office—he’s been jailed twice on sodomy convictions and also for abuse of power. Still, while a pardon clears the way for him to resume a political role, the move may exacerbate tension within the fledgling government.
That’s because Mahathir, 92, promised during the campaign to stand aside for Anwar once he was pardoned but is now pushing back the potential timeline by a matter of years.
Failing to make room for Anwar would highlight the extent to which the durability of the coalition rests on a continued rapprochement between the two former enemies. “There is this give-and-take that the two must abide by,” according to Sivamurugan Pandian, a professor of political sociology at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “The longer the wait the greater the animosity among Anwar’s supporters, but at the same time they understand that the unifying factor that led them to win the election was Mahathir.”
Mahathir said on Tuesday that Anwar would first need to contest a parliamentary seat, and potentially then take a Cabinet role.
“In the initial stages, maybe lasting one or two years, I will have to be the prime minister and I will have to run the country,” Mahathir said via video conference to participants at a Wall Street Journal event in Tokyo.
The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir has been marked by decades of bitterness and public attacks, stemming from Mahathir’s decision during a prior stint in power to sack Anwar as his deputy amid a dispute on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis. After he was fired in 1998, Anwar was jailed in the majority Muslim nation for committing sodomy and abusing power, charges he denied.
He was convicted in 2014 on a subsequent sodomy charge and jailed in 2015 when his appeal was denied. He needed the royal pardon to bypass a five-year ban on re-entering politics. There are already signs of tension in the four-party coalition in the election aftermath, including public squabbles over the way Cabinet posts are decided. The Pakatan Harapan grouping includes one mostly representing ethnic Malays, and one representing Chinese.
“I expect some resistance,” Mahathir said of differences related to cabinet appointments. “So far we have been able to resolve. It is accepted that the final decision will be made by me.” Najib last month referred to Mahathir’s coalition as a “motley collection of parties” that he said would struggle to remain united. Prior versions of the alliance—before Mahathir joined—collapsed in acrimony over ideology, and at times parties competed against each other for votes in the same districts.
Unity between Anwar, 70, and Mahathir is key to the government executing quickly on campaign promises to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax, review big-ticket infrastructure projects and cut spending.