Port Dickson, Malaysia – On a soggy evening in a small town just south of Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, Anwar Ibrahim fires up the crowd.
Bounding up to the stage, he talks mostly in Malay, peppering his speech with English and delighting the mainly Chinese crowd with a few words of Mandarin.
He tells them he will fight for all Malaysians, regardless of where they come from: “We are all family.”
The few hundred-strong crowd, seated beneath a giant canopy next to shuttered shops, claps and cheers.
Pardoned of a sodomy conviction that put him behind bars for a third time in 2015, Anwar is taking his first steps back to power, standing in a specially engineered by-election on Saturday that could eventually allow him to take over from Mahathir Mohamad – his ally-turned-nemesis-turned-ally – and become Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.
“If [Anwar] wins, it brings him back into the political mainstream of Malaysia,” said Keith Leong, head of research at the KRA Group in Kuala Lumpur. “It allows him to be in contention to succeed Mahathir. [But] if he loses, it will be a significant blow to his credibility and his claim on the premiership.”
While the by-election in Port Dickson appears to be Anwar’s to lose – the representative who stepped down to allow Anwar to contest won a 17,710 majority in May’s general election – any margin of victory will be closely watched, given the potential implications for the country’s leadership.
“[A] convincing victory is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a smooth transition and political stability,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute.
“Necessary because a weak victory for Anwar will invite some to try blocking his ascendance and the succession battle will be wide open. Not sufficient because it depends on the arrangement between Mahathir and Anwar. There needs to be a clear division of labour between Mahathir and Anwar.”
Rebuild the nation
The two men gave little away when they campaigned together in the seaside town earlier this week. It was the first time they had appeared together at a political rally in more than 20 years – when Mahathir sacked and jailed his one-time protege.
Thousands turned out for the event, according to local newspaper The Star. “I hope that we can work together,” the paper quoted Mahathir saying. “Not for Anwar. Not for Mahathir, but for our beloved country and the Malaysians who entrusted us with this opportunity to rebuild the nation.”
A multicultural country of more than 30 million people, Malaysia’s population is mostly Malay Muslim but has substantial communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as numerous indigenous peoples. Government policies that favour the Malays have left many minorities feeling bitter, while some worry that increasing religious conservatism risks further undermining national cohesion.
Analysts say Anwar, who got his break in politics in the 1970s as the leader of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, known by its Malay acronym ABIM, may be best-placed to tackle the issue.
“Religion has become so divisive as a factor in Malaysian society,” said Kee Thuan Chye, author of a forthcoming book on the May election, The People’s Victory. “He will have to moderate it and he is the best person to do that because of his Islamic credentials. If he’s to do this country a favour then he must use this credibility to bring about a Malaysia that is less fundamentalist in its approach to Islam.”
It was those religious credentials that persuaded Mahathir, then in his first stint as premier, that Anwar would be a useful ally. In the 1980s, he persuaded the man US officials had called a “firebrand”, who had already served time in prison under the Internal Security Act, to join him in the ruling party. Under Mahathir’s tutelage, Anwar rose quickly, becoming education minister, then finance minister and…