Updated at 11:30 a.m. ET on 2018-05-15
Nearly two decades after fleeing on a motorcycle to escape from police only to suffer a black eye while in their custody, Anwar Ibrahim is on a journey likely to propel him to the top spot in Malaysia’s government.
Weeks earlier in September 1998, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar as his deputy. Following the black-eye incident, Anwar was arrested, convicted and jailed on corruption and his first sodomy charge. In 2004, the sodomy conviction was overturned but his corruption conviction stood.
Almost two decades later, Anwar and his bitter foe Mahathir made amends as they joined forces in a mission to defeat Prime Minister Najib Razak and his powerful Barisan Nasional bloc with their upstart alliance of political parties.
On Wednesday, their four-party Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition dealt BN a stunning defeat in the 14th General Election while running under the banner of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR). Anwar led the opposition in the previous election, in 2013, in which his side won the popular vote but could not win enough parliamentary seats to topple BN.
And as this week’s historic vote unfolded, Anwar, 70, was confined as a prisoner at Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital, after suffering a shoulder injury while being transported in a prison van. In February 2015, he began serving a five-year sentence on a second sodomy conviction.
Now, he is waiting for a royal pardon and to be released from his prison sentence. Mahathir, 92, who was sworn in again as prime minister on Thursday, has promised to cede the office once Anwar is freed.
Mahathir said the handover should happen soon.
“In the course of our discussion with King yesterday, he said he is willing to pardon Anwar Ibrahim immediately,” Mahathir said Friday.
Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who was named the country’s new deputy prime minister, said her husband could be released next week if all goes well. Previously, no woman had held the position of deputy PM. She has matched her husband in that achievement.
“There are many things that we have to look through,” she said. “What most is important is the King has expressed his willingness to give a full pardon to Anwar,” she said at the hospital.
Even while locked up since 2015, Anwar has been seeking to change Malaysia and called on his supporters to challenge the ruling party.
“Yes, Anwar is inside the prison and still listening to our shouts for reform. He constantly reminds us to be strong and continue to unite against inhumane treatment,” Wan Azizah said in February 2016 on the one-year anniversary of his incarceration.
Wan Azizah, who serves as PKR president, was among at least 113 Pakatan coalition candidates elected to the 222-seat parliament on Wednesday, giving it a simple majority needed to unseat BN. She campaigned under the PKR banner whose symbol is said to represent the 1998 attack on Anwar.
“Vote for Pakatan Harapan (whose) logo looks like an eye. The eye represents that of Anwar who was punched,” she told supporters during a rally days before the election, local media reported.
The most recent roadblocks for Anwar assuming power began with his second sodomy conviction. He was acquitted on the charge in 2012, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision two years later and ordered the five-year sentence.
On Feb. 10, 2015, a Federal Court panel rejected Anwar’s appeal and he was taken into custody.
Anwar’s accuser, former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, called on his former boss to seek forgiveness while in prison, adding some people were misled to believe that Anwar was a political prisoner and not a felon.
“I was the victim in this case. Am I not human, that my rights as a victim are denied by human rights groups,” Saiful said in 2016.
Last year, Anwar unsuccessfully challenged his conviction on two occasions, claiming Saiful offered perjured testimony and that the prosecuting attorney was paid 9.5 million ringgit (U.S. $2.2 million ringgit) to try the case.
One positive step occurred in September 2016 when Anwar met with his former boss for the first time since Mahathir dismissed his then-deputy. They were in court together as Mahathir backed Anwar’s legal challenge against Najib’s implementation of a tough national security law, which, rights groups said, would allow the party in power to trample on human rights with impunity.
After that meeting, Mahathir told reporters it was possible for the two men to join forces to oust BN.
“I cannot continue holding a grudge,” Mahathir told BenarNews in an interview that month.
Later, the new opposition coalition involving Anwar’s PKR, Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) along with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the faith-based National Trust Party (Amanah), bickered over who would be prime minister if BN could finally be toppled. In June 2017, Anwar announced he would not be the candidate.
“With regard to the calls to focus full attention on the general election, therefore, I choose not to offer myself as a prime ministerial candidate,” Anwar said.
“The friction (over who will be prime minister) is exhausting (the opposition), as the final decision lies with the people in the general election.”
Mahathir pointed out that at 92, he was not interested in returning to the post he held for more than two decades. “If, in the end, nobody comes forward, nobody agrees to any candidate and they point out to me, it’ll be churlish of me, just because I want to retire and rest and all that, not to respond to them,” he said.
In the end, the coalition decided Mahathir would be its candidate who would serve until Anwar took over.
The coalition maneuvered through several more roadblocks leading up to the most monumental electoral upset in Malaysian history. One of those roadblocks was directed specifically at Anwar and Mahathir.
In November 2017, the government released a 524-page report recommending authorities investigate the pair in connection to billions of dollars in central bank losses during the 1990s when they were in power.
Wan Azizah stuck up for her husband, challenging the timing of its release.
“The report was ready and was sent to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [Malaysian king] six weeks ago, it should have been given to us much earlier,” she told reporters at parliament.
“Today, when we asked to debate the findings, it was rejected. This shows that whatever we have assumed before has now become true, that it is a political move over an issue that was resurrected after so many years to implicate their political opponents,” Wan Azizah said.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was named but not sworn in as deputy prime minister.