Malaysian PM Fends Off Attacks from Former Leaders

The government of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has come under attack by two former prime ministers, Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad, possibly undermining the country’s political stability just five months into Anwar’s tenure. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which wields considerable influence in the government’s 19-party coalition, has called for Najib’s release from prison, where he is serving a 12-year sentence for his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal. Mahathir, meanwhile, is filing a lawsuit against Anwar, alleging Anwar defamed him.

Anwar taking hits from two directions

Najib lost his appeal to Malaysia’s Federal Court and is now seeking a royal pardon. Anwar has stated that he will be part of the Pardons Board, which will review Najib’s request. UMNO’s pardon request puts Anwar in an awkward position. With public petitions — including one led by Najib’s supporters and another by election watchdog, Bersih — skewed against Najib’s release, a pardon could be seen as Anwar failing to make good on his repeated pledges to address corruption.

Mahathir, who has a tumultuous political relationship with Anwar, claims that Anwar publicly insinuated that Mahathir and his family benefited financially from Mahathir’s nearly 24-year-long tenure as prime minister. The two traded blows on social media and in the news after the 97-year-old Mahathir lost his parliamentary seat in the 2022 general elections.

What’s at stake?

Anwar’s staying power will be tested in state elections, which will take place in August. Pakatan Harapan, the ruling political coalition chaired by Anwar, faces considerable challenges in retaining power in several states, including its former stronghold of Penang, unless Anwar can showcase the positive results of his economic reforms. Anwar will also have to fend off another jab from Mahathir; politics in Malaysia have been historically polarized over race, and Mahathir has raised concerns that the Malay majority has “lost its dominance.”