KUALA LUMPUR (AFP/AP) – Reformist Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim declared a ‘new dawn for Malaysia’ yesterday after his release from prison paved the way for a return to national politics as presumptive successor to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad following a stunning election upset.
In scenes that captivated Malaysians, the charismatic 70-year-old returned to the national spotlight after the country’s King quashed a widely criticised sodomy conviction that had put Anwar behind bars for three years.
Earlier, Anwar was thronged by scores of supporters and reporters after he walked free from a hospital, where he was recovering from shoulder surgery, and whisked away to an audience with Malaysia’s King. The royal palace said in a statement that the monarch had given Anwar a full pardon following advice from the Pardons Board.
To ecstatic cries of ‘Reformasi!’ (Reform) – Anwar’s rallying cry – he took selfies with his former prison guards and vowed before hundreds of journalists and supporters to back efforts to take the country in a new direction.
Analysts say his release could cause tensions in the new government led by Mahathir, who after leading the four-party alliance in the election campaign has become the world’s oldest leader. The 92-year-old Mahathir is the chairman of the alliance and Anwar is its de facto leader.
Anwar sought to allay those concerns, saying he was not in a hurry to take over from Mahathir. Anwar’s wife, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is currently the Deputy Prime Minister.
Anwar, who needs to contest a by-election to become a Member of Parliament, said he doesn’t want a Cabinet post yet as he plans to spend time with his family and travel abroad for speaking engagements. He reiterated his full support for Mahathir’s leadership and said their political feud has long been buried.
Anwar said he had forgiven Mahathir, who had him imprisoned two decades ago but has become his unlikely ally.
“Now there is a new dawn for Malaysia,” said Anwar, flanked by Wan Azizah and other members of his political party.
“The entire spectrum of Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, have stood by the principles of democracy and freedom. They demand change.”
Anwar has cast a long shadow over Malaysian politics for decades.
He enjoyed a meteoric rise in the now-ousted Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition before a spectacular falling out with his then-boss Mahathir in 1998 that saw Anwar thrown in jail for sodomy and abuse of power.
Upon his release in 2004, he joined and revitalised the opposition coalition that finally ousted BN last week.
Anwar’s release yesterday from his second jail term for an unrelated sodomy conviction sets up a tantalising reunion with his nemesis-turned-ally Mahathir.
Mahathir has said he expects to run the government for one to two years but has signalled that the reins would be turned over to Anwar eventually.
Anwar said his history with Mahathir was water under the bridge, as they shared the same goals of reforming the government and cleaning up a massive corruption scandal involving former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
“Bury the hatchet? It’s been a long time already,” Anwar said when asked about Mahathir.
“I have forgiven him.”
Anwar indicated that he had no immediate plans to get deeply involved in politics, but would support Mahathir’s governing efforts as a “private citizen”.
Anwar’s release caps a remarkable reversal of fortune made possible by the BN’s unexpected electoral drubbing a week ago.
Mahathir, who headed BN for 22 years until 2003, came out of retirement to lead the disparate opposition to a surprise victory.