WHEN ANWAR IBRAHIM declared in late September he had a “strong, formidable majority” of MPs ready to unseat the government of Muhyiddin Yassin, some in Malaysia wondered whether Mr Anwar’s moment had come at last. Others groaned. Mr Muhyiddin’s government, which itself came to power in a parliamentary coup, is just seven months old. How would more upheaval help contain the pandemic, revive the battered economy, or improve the country’s dismal politics of patronage and race? Mr Anwar had once cared about policy. This seemed a naked power-grab.
Mr Anwar hates being called Asia’s eternal prime minister-in-waiting. In the late 1990s, when financial crisis laid bare the cronyism over which Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister at the time, presided, it looked like Mr Anwar’s moment. The young high-flyer, already deputy prime minister, had long called for an end to the cosy ties between business and politics under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). In 1997 Time put him on the cover: “Anwar and the Future of Asia”. Yet within a year, Dr Mahathir had fired his uppity protégé and thrown him in jail on flimsy charges of abuse of office and sodomy.
Fast forward to 2018, when Dr Mahathir came out of retirement at the head of a new party, Bersatu, with the aim of defeating UMNO and his successor-but-one as prime minister, Najib Razak, who had presided over stupendous corruption. Even more surprising than the 93-year-old’s comeback was his choice of ally: Mr Anwar. Mr Najib, too, had thrown him in jail on sodomy charges. From behind bars, Mr Anwar commanded an opposition coalition that included many from the Chinese and Indian minorities, but he needed the votes that Dr Mahathir, still popular among the ethnic-Malay majority, could bring. Together, the two won an election in 2018, kicking UMNO from power for the first time. A week after the general election, Mr Anwar was out of jail with a royal pardon.
Yet as they had done in the 1990s, the pair began to squabble over how soon Dr Mahathir would give way to Mr Anwar. Dr Mahathir set his sidekicks to work negotiating a coalition of Malay parties, including UMNO, so that he could sideline Mr Anwar, whose own party is multiracial and whose coalition rests heavily on the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP). In the event, Dr Mahathir was the biggest victim of the machinations, overthrown by Mr Muhyiddin.
In turn, Mr Muhyiddin has ruled like the former UMNO guy he is, spreading patronage, pleasing Malay chauvinists by pursuing corruption charges against a former finance minister who is the country’s most prominent Chinese politician, Lim Guan Eng of the DAP, and employing repressive laws to go after critics. To his credit, he has resisted pressure from UMNO cronies to drop the charges against Mr Najib, who has now been convicted on several counts. He has also just burnished his reputation by assembling a winning coalition in state elections in Sabah, part of the Malaysian bit of Borneo—denting Mr Anwar’s claim that his government is a spent force.
Mr Anwar’s confidence that he can topple Mr Muhyiddin seems to derive from the backing he has secured from several members of UMNO who also face corruption proceedings, including the party president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is battling 87 charges. So much for Mr Anwar’s claim to the moral high ground. Yet even such a pact may not win him the votes he needs. UMNO aristocrats with cut-glass English look down on the rough-spoken Mr Zahid and calculate that, with Mr Najib gone, they can claim the party has had a makeover. They look forward to an election, on the assumption that Dr Mahathir, Mr Anwar and Mr Muhyiddin have feuded so grotesquely that voters will turn back to UMNO.
That leaves Malaysia in limbo, with few believing Mr Anwar can topple the government but only one man able to dispel his claim: the king, who can appoint as prime minister anyone he believes enjoys the support of a majority of MPs. He has been undergoing such intensive treatment for sore knees and ankles in hospital for the past 11 days, he has not found time to receive Mr Anwar. Mr Muhyiddin has assiduously courted the seven Malay sultans who take turns serving as Malaysia’s monarch, not just by defending Malay prerogatives, but also by backing grand projects like a high-speed railway to Singapore from which several of them may benefit as big landowners. Meanwhile, the prime minister-in-waiting waits on.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Always the man of the future”