Port Dickson, Malaysia – On a soggy evening in a small town just south of Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, Anwar Ibrahim fires up the crowd.
Bounding up to the stage, he talks mostly in Malay, peppering his speech with English and delighting the mainly Chinese crowd with a few words of Mandarin.
He tells them he will fight for all Malaysians, regardless of where they come from: “We are all family.”
The few hundred-strong crowd, seated beneath a giant canopy next to shuttered shops, claps and cheers.
Pardoned of a sodomy conviction that put him behind bars for a third time in 2015, Anwar is taking his first steps back to power, standing in a specially engineered by-election on Saturday that could eventually allow him to take over from Mahathir Mohamad – his ally-turned-nemesis-turned-ally – and become Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.
“If [Anwar] wins, it brings him back into the political mainstream of Malaysia,” said Keith Leong, head of research at the KRA Group in Kuala Lumpur. “It allows him to be in contention to succeed Mahathir. [But] if he loses, it will be a significant blow to his credibility and his claim on the premiership.”
While the by-election in Port Dickson appears to be Anwar’s to lose – the representative who stepped down to allow Anwar to contest won a 17,710 majority in May’s general election – any margin of victory will be closely watched, given the potential implications for the country’s leadership.
“[A] convincing victory is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a smooth transition and political stability,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute.
“Necessary because a weak victory for Anwar will invite some to try blocking his ascendance and the succession battle will be wide open. Not sufficient because it depends on the arrangement between Mahathir and Anwar. There needs to be a clear division of labour between Mahathir and Anwar.”
The two men gave little away when they campaigned together in the seaside town earlier this week. It was the first time they had appeared together at a political rally in more than 20 years – when Mahathir sacked and jailed his one-time protege.
Thousands turned out for the event, according to local newspaper The Star. “I hope that we can work together,” the paper quoted Mahathir saying. “Not for Anwar. Not for Mahathir, but for our beloved country and the Malaysians who entrusted us with this opportunity to rebuild the nation.”
A multicultural country of more than 30 million people, Malaysia’s population is mostly Malay Muslim but has substantial communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as numerous indigenous peoples. Government policies that favour the Malays have left many minorities feeling bitter, while some worry that increasing religious conservatism risks further undermining national cohesion.
Analysts say Anwar, who got his break in politics in the 1970s as the leader of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, known by its Malay acronym ABIM, may be best-placed to tackle the issue.
“Religion has become so divisive as a factor in Malaysian society,” said Kee Thuan Chye, author of a forthcoming book on the May election, The People’s Victory. “He will have to moderate it and he is the best person to do that because of his Islamic credentials. If he’s to do this country a favour then he must use this credibility to bring about a Malaysia that is less fundamentalist in its approach to Islam.”
It was those religious credentials that persuaded Mahathir, then in his first stint as premier, that Anwar would be a useful ally. In the 1980s, he persuaded the man US officials had called a “firebrand”, who had already served time in prison under the Internal Security Act, to join him in the ruling party. Under Mahathir’s tutelage, Anwar rose quickly, becoming education minister, then finance minister and finally deputy prime minister and heir apparent.
Over a breakfast of thosai (an Indian pancake) and curry, in a voice made hoarse by days of campaigning, Anwar urges local residents to vote – there are some 75,000 people in the constituency with seven candidates on the ballot – and promises to work hard for everyone.
Thaharma Kamaurddin, 67, a retired airline pilot, is finishing up his breakfast with a friend at a nearby table. He jumps up to shake Anwar’s hand, almost missing the chance in the crowd of supporters and security.
“From what I hear and see, I think he will bring the races together and that’s what we want,” he says. “It will be like before.”
Across town, Stevie Chan, 51, is taking a break from campaigning at a park by the waterfront. The independent candidate has worn out one pair of shoes already in his bid for election.
Chan threw his hat into the ring because he believes that Anwar should have waited for a seat to become available rather than deliberately triggering an election by having a loyal party member resign. While not illegal under Malaysian election law, Chan believes the move is unethical.
A Pakatan supporter in the May election, he says he is committed to the coalition’s reform agenda, but he has doubts about the myths that he says have grown around Anwar.
“The tragic hero and all that,” Chan said. “I don’t buy these things. I don’t like all that.”
A prime minister-in-waiting during Malaysia’s boom years of the 1990s, Anwar’s spectacular fall from grace came in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998. Thousands of Malaysians poured onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur when he was sacked and accused of sodomy, demanding reform. His appearance in court with a black eye – the result of a beating from the then-chief of police – only fed their anger and hunger for change.
After a lengthy and lurid trial that was criticised internationally, Anwar was eventually found guilty and jailed.
It was only once Mahathir had resigned that Anwar was freed. Thousands thronged his house in an upmarket Kuala Lumpur suburb on the night he returned home in 2004, an early indication that while Anwar had been gone, he had not been forgotten. Unable to return to politics until 2008, he took up teaching in universities overseas.
New sodomy allegations emerged in 2008, but that didn’t stop Anwar from standing for election and becoming leader of the opposition, where he called for political reforms.
Acquitted of the charges four years later, after the High Court found the DNA evidence unreliable, it seemed the case had gone away. But in 2014, the decision was suddenly overturned and Anwar found himself facing five years in prison. The country’s top court upheld the verdict in 2015 and he was once again out of politics and behind bars.
“He had an opportunity to leave and do anything he wanted, but he chose to stay in Malaysia and to make that choice speaks volumes of his character,” observed Charles Allers, author of The Making of a Muslim Democrat, a biography of Anwar that was published in 2011.
“They had put him in jail once and could do it again. Knowing that was a possibility, he was still willing to run the gauntlet whatever the personal cost might be.”
Anwar remained imprisoned throughout the 2018 election, but as his party’s de facto leader, his support was crucial to the coalition’s decision to stand behind Mahathir.
Brought together by a joint determination to overthrow former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now on trial in connection with billions of dollars that went missing from state fund 1MDB, the two reached a pact. Anwar would back Mahathir and the 93-year-old would ensure Anwar was pardoned and released from jail. He also agreed to step down within two years to allow the younger man to take over.
After so many decades in the tumult of Malaysian politics, it seems Anwar’s time may finally have arrived.
“This is the most historic by-election in the history of Malaysia,” Lim Kit Siang, a veteran of Malaysia’s long struggle for democracy, told the crowd as Anwar said his goodbyes.
“It’s about whether we continue what we did in May 9. Whether we continue to build a better Malaysia.”