Reformist Anwar Ibrahim declared a “new dawn for Malaysia” Wednesday after his release from prison paved the way for a return to national politics as presumptive successor to Prime Minister 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.
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.
Anwar said he had forgiven Mahathir, 92, 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 his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail 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 Wednesday 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 Najib 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.
The former autocrat Mahathir, who headed BN for 22 years until 2003, came out of retirement to lead the disparate opposition to a surprise victory.
Many had expected a BN win thanks to its tight hold over the media, government, police and electoral apparatus of the multicultural Muslim-majority nation.
But the result laid bare the depth of disgust with former leader Najib, who is implicated in a massive scandal in which billions of dollars were plundered from the state investment fund 1MDB he established.
Mahathir has barred Najib from leaving the country pending investigations.
The BN had ruled since independence in 1957. Anwar’s release adds to a dizzying sense of change and is likely to fuel expectations for an entirely new national direction.
Xavier Jayakumar, a member of parliament with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, called it “a momentous day for all of Malaysia”.
“The joy is similar to when South Africans celebrated with jubilation after Nelson Mandela was freed,” he said.
Amnesty International, which had denounced Anwar’s imprisonment as “politically motivated”, called his release a “landmark moment for human rights in the country”.
Safuan Awang, 35, who works for a medical supply company and is a member of Anwar’s party, rejoiced at the release of “our hero Anwar Ibrahim”.
“We have been waiting for this for such a long time,” he said, expressing confidence that Anwar and Mahathir would work together.
“It will help to improve the economy, and improve the situation between different races. It will make the country more peaceful.”
Anwar’s path to leadership remains unclear, however.
Only a parliament member can become premier, but Anwar was stripped of his seat in 2015 after his conviction on charges of sodomising a young male aide.
That conviction is viewed by many as orchestrated by Najib’s government to neutralise Anwar as a political threat.
Previously, the charismatic Anwar headed various ministries under Mahathir’s tutelage in the 1990s, earning praise as a reformer. He eventually became deputy prime minister and Mahathir’s presumed successor.
But the two men fell out bitterly, largely over how to respond to the 1997 financial crisis, and unprecedented public protests were triggered when the popular Anwar was jailed.
After six years in prison, Anwar’s star power helped unite the previously hapless opposition before the latest sodomy charges cast him once again into the political wilderness.