(Bloomberg) -- Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim is a free man just one week after his coalition’s shock election win and after more than three years in jail. Still, while it clears the way for him to return to politics, it’s unlikely he will take over as premier anytime soon.
Anwar walked late morning from a hospital where he’d been receiving treatment, and was pardoned by the king for a sodomy conviction. He met with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad -- his partner in the ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance -- and Anwar’s party plans a public celebration tonight. His release comes just a day before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan begins.
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 and getting into a car alongside his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is deputy prime minister and also president of their People’s Justice Party, or PKR.
Speaking at a briefing later outside his house in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar said he had thanked Mahathir, his former bitter enemy, for his help getting released. He was presented with a flower garland from his ethnic Indian supporters in the colors of his party along with a basket of eggs, which one of his backers said symbolized renewal.
"When you are incarcerated you realize what is the meaning and significance of freedom,” Anwar said. “There is a new dawn for Malaysia."
Anwar said he backed Mahathir as premier and would not insist on any timeframe for a handover of power. Asked about their past feuds, he said "I have forgiven him," adding "why should I harbor malice against him?"
"My position is to give him all the support necessary to allow him to ensure that the agenda for reform, the changes that need to be done, can be carried out,” he said. “It’s not a one man show. It’s a decision to be made by a team of leaders from Pakatan Harapan, with Dr M who is the chief steward in the entire process.”
Anwar added he planned to rest and carry out some speaking commitments at universities. “I think I need that time, that space.”
His 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. And his initial comments may ease, at least for now, early tensions within the fledgling government.
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. That highlights the extent to which the durability of the coalition rests on a continued rapprochement between the two former enemies.
“Anwar realizes that for Pakatan Harapan to stay united and strong, he shouldn’t interfere or meddle in affairs at the moment,” said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “He has to take an outsider role, and give possible advice -- becoming an elder statesperson.”
Mahathir has indicated any power shift will take time.
“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,” he said Tuesday 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 was convicted in 2014 on a subsequent sodomy charge and jailed in 2015 when his appeal was denied. He needed the royal pardon to bypass a five-year ban on re-entering politics.
There have been signs of tension in the four-party coalition in the election aftermath, including public squabbles over the way cabinet posts are decided. Pakatan Harapan includes a party mostly representing ethnic Malays, and one representing Chinese.
“I expect some resistance,” Mahathir said Tuesday 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.”
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