Malaysia PM Anwar plans confidence vote to prove to rival he commands a majority

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said he plans to test lawmakers’ support for his leadership with a confidence vote on Dec. 19, as he seeks to prove to a defiant rival that he commands a parliamentary majority.

The 75-year-old leader was sworn in by King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah on Thursday, capping a tumultuous political career that veered from coming close to clinching the top job on more than one occasion to spending years in prison on sodomy charges.

The monarch intervened after no alliance secured a majority in a general election Saturday in which Anwar’s coalition won the most seats. Anwar’s reformist Pakatan Harapan will now lead after cobbling together a unity government with former ruling bloc Barisan Nasional, regional parties from Sarawak and a slew of independents and a youth-centric group.

Anwar told reporters and supporters in his first press conference as prime minister that he will table the 2023 budget during the December parliament session. He also announced a public holiday on Monday.

“Muhyiddin had thrown a challenge to test our strength, which he does not need to do so because I’m not a prime minister like him who avoided it,” Anwar said in reference to his rival who led a competing coalition made up for pro-Malay parties and Islamists. “The first motion is from the government, which is a vote of confidence in me.”

It’s a defining achievement for Anwar, the almost man of Malaysian politics who was seen as former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s successor back in the 1990s and set to replace him after the 2018 election, only for the plans to unravel both times. It’s also an important moment for Malaysian democracy after voters resoundingly rejected the country’s long-ruling political old guard.

Anwar told the crowd that he was asked by his grandson how long it took for him to become prime minister. “Not too long, only 24 years,” Anwar quipped.

Pakatan Harapan got the most seats in Saturday’s general elections — 82 out of 220 up for grabs that day — but fell short of winning a majority, leading to the first hung parliament in the nation’s history. Former premier Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional wasn’t far behind at 73 seats, and was also angling to cobble together a government.

Moments before Anwar was sworn in at the palace, a defiant Muhyiddin challenged Anwar to prove that he has the majority support of parliamentary members, saying he already obtained signed declarations from 115 lawmakers.

“The whole Malaysia wants to know whether it’s true or not, and what is the proof,” Muhyiddin said at a briefing. He added that it was crucial for Anwar to show he had the numbers to avoid public dissent and dissatisfaction.

The country was thrown into turmoil as the two men scrambled to make deals with other parties to secure a majority. The monarch was forced to step in and hold talks with various parties before eventually announcing Anwar as prime minister. Markets cheered the news on Thursday, with Malaysian stocks surging the most in over two years and the ringgit having its best day since 2016.

“It is reassuring indeed,” Anwar said of the strong gains in the markets. “Let us now focus on the economy, and do whatever it takes to revive it so that the welfare of the people, particularly the poor and marginalized will be protected.”

Barisan Nasional, Anwar’s longtime nemesis, ruled Malaysia almost without interruption since its independence in 1957 but the scandal-beset group suffered its heaviest-ever defeat in the weekend vote. Despite that, its 30 seats gave it a strong influence in deciding which coalition would lead the government.

The need to form partnerships to secure a majority could make it more difficult for Anwar to achieve his campaign pledges, which include addressing the rising cost of living, undertaking key reforms and taking a hard line on corruption.

“Malaysia can finally look to a new prime minister but major hurdles remain ahead as Anwar Ibrahim looks to stabilize a loosely cobbled federal government,”said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director at BowerGroupAsia. “The next step is for Anwar to form a Cabinet that is able to appease all parties.”

The election also saw the rise of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS as it’s known, a party with a long-stated objective of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state. Scores of ethnic Malay voters turned from Barisan Nasional to PAS, giving it the most seats among any single party and establishing it as a force in Malaysian politics.

The swing came after about 6 million young voters were registered to cast ballots for the first time as the country lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, although it’s not clear how they voted.

“Malaysians have been voting at cross purposes since 1998, and there is an apparent peak polarization now in 2022,” said Khor Yu Leng, a regional economist at Segi Enam Advisors. Anwar will have to bridge divisions and he needs to look at a “more inspired budget, a pro-people reforms drive and the re-professionalization of the political economy.”

PH and its coalition partners will probably have to deal with a slowdown in the economy after a rapid but uneven rebound from the pandemic. Gross domestic product expanded at a region-beating 14.2% in the latest quarter thanks to tailwinds from commodities and oil and robust manufacturing, but inflation has almost doubled from the start of the year, despite subsidies on food and fuel.

The central bank’s growth target for 2023 is 4%-5% versus an estimate of more than 7% this year, to reflect the weakness of the global outlook.

Anwar’s political career has been a case of so near, but yet so far. He was considered in line to succeed Mahathir in the 1990s before he was fired in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, after which he spent six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy, the latter a crime in the largely Islamic nation.

He then joined hands with Mahathir to win the 2018 election, only to see his old rival fail to honor a promise to step aside. Tensions between the two eventually led to the government collapsing. Anwar made several more unsuccessful bids to become premier in the wake of Mahathir’s resignation. – BLOOMBERG