Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim was freed and pardoned Wednesday after the alliance he jointly leads pulled off a shock election win just a week ago, although it’s unlikely he will take over as premier anytime soon.
Anwar walked late morning from a hospital where he’d been held and receiving treatment, and was pardoned shortly afterward by the King for a sodomy conviction. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — Anwar’s coalition partner — is due to speak mid-afternoon to the media, and Anwar’s party plans a public celebration this evening which he will attend.
There were cheers and shouts of jubilation outside the hospital as a smiling Anwar appeared, flanked by large numbers of police and security officials. Wearing a suit, he touched his heart before waving at a scrum of reporters and photographers and getting into a waiting car alongside his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is deputy prime minister and also president of the People’s Justice Party, or PKR.
It comes just a day before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan begins. “What better way to greet Ramadan,” his daughter Nurul Izzah posted on Instagram. “A pardon based on a miscarriage of justice, a separation met with an eventual embrace.”
Anwar’s release is a moment to celebrate for a group which labored in opposition for decades and faced constant pressure from those in office — he’s been jailed twice on sodomy convictions and also for abuse of power. Still, while a pardon clears the way for him to resume a political role, the move may exacerbate tension within the fledgling government.
That’s because Mahathir, 92, promised during the campaign to stand aside for Anwar once he was pardoned but is now pushing back the potential timeline by a matter of years. Failing to make room for Anwar would highlight the extent to which the durability of the coalition rests on a continued rapprochement between the two former enemies.
“There is this give-and-take that the two must abide by,” according to Sivamurugan Pandian, a professor of political sociology at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “The longer the wait the greater the animosity among Anwar’s supporters, but at the same time they understand that the unifying factor that led them to win the election was Mahathir.”
Read more: How Sworn Enemies Toppled Najib But Pose a New Risk to Malaysia
Mahathir said Tuesday that Anwar will need first to contest a parliamentary seat, and potentially then take a cabinet role.
“In the initial stages, maybe lasting one or two years, I will have to be the prime minister and I will have to run the country,” Mahathir said via video conference to participants at a Wall Street Journal event in Tokyo.
The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir has been marked by decades of bitterness and public attacks, stemming from Mahathir’s decision during a prior stint in power to sack Anwar as his deputy amid a dispute on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis.
After he was fired in 1998, Anwar was jailed in the majority Muslim nation for committing sodomy and abusing power, charges he denied. He is currently in jail on a subsequent sodomy conviction and would require the royal pardon to bypass a five-year ban on re-entering politics.
Read more: Mahathir in His Own Words: On Markets, Islam and Anwar Ibrahim
There are already signs of tension in the four-party coalition in the election aftermath, including public squabbles over the way cabinet posts are decided. The Pakatan Harapan grouping includes one mostly representing ethnic Malays, and one representing Chinese.
“I expect some resistance,” Mahathir said of differences related to cabinet appointments. “So far we have been able to resolve. It is accepted that the final decision will be made by me.”
Najib last month referred to Mahathir’s coalition as a “motley collection of parties” that he said would struggle to remain united. Prior versions of the alliance — before Mahathir joined — collapsed in acrimony over ideology, and at times parties competed against each other for votes in the same districts.
Unity between Anwar, 70, and Mahathir is key to the government executing quickly on campaign promises to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax, review big-ticket infrastructure projects and cut spending.
“The reason why the public supported us is they have faith in the leadership of the opposition to resolve some of the problems,” Mahathir said Tuesday.
“He is leader of one of the coalition parties,” he said of Anwar. “I expect him to play the same role as the leaders of the other three parties. There will be no more special powers given, excepting as is given to ministers or deputy ministers or deputy prime ministers.”
— With assistance by Isabel Reynolds, and Anisah Shukry