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Anwar can balance PM-in-waiting and backbencher roles, say analysts

SINGAPORE — It is a peculiar and unprecedented situation: A Prime Minister-in-waiting as an influential backbencher seeking to push through major reforms.

Anwar can balance PM-in-waiting and backbencher roles, say analysts

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim speaking at his last rally in Port Dickson on Oct 12, 2018 before his win in the by-election.

SINGAPORE — It is a peculiar and unprecedented situation: A Prime Minister-in-waiting as an influential backbencher seeking to push through major reforms.

But Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim should be able to work things out with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said analysts, who noted that both men would be keenly aware that the dynamics between them will be scrutinised in the next one and half to two years before Mr Anwar takes over the premiership as expected.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee, the director of Centre for Policy Initiatives, a policy think tank in Kuala Lumpur, said the two leaders will not want to give the impression that they are at loggerheads on key policies or reform issues.

"That will simply undermine PH and lead to an outcome which will reflect badly on the ruling government as well as the two leaders," he said, referring to the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Mr James Chin, the Malaysian-born director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, added: "Anwar can be a backbencher and be critical of the government. It will not be a problem as long as it is about (government) policies and not a direct attack on Dr Mahathir." 

Mr Anwar, 71, was sworn in as the Port Dickson Member of Parliament on Monday (Oct 15) following his victory in a by-election in the coastal parliamentary seat in the state of Negeri Sembilan on Saturday.

The by-election is part of his planned return to political office, and forms part of a PH succession plan which will see Dr Mahathir hand over power to Mr Anwar after serving for two years.

Mr Anwar has in recent weeks said that there is no fixed timeline for him to take over as prime minister, stressing that it is important that Dr Mahathir not be constrained by a deadline given his many pressing priorities.

Dr Mahathir himself recently said that he will keep his promise of handing over power to Mr Anwar, but he is not sure when this will be.

However, the lack of a clear timeline has raised some questions on the succession plan.

The pair had reconciled in 2016, ending a bitter feud lasting almost two decades that was sparked by Dr Mahathir’s sacking of Mr Anwar as his deputy in 1998 over political differences during the former’s first term as prime minister.

Following his sacking, Mr Anwar formed opposition party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), but was subsequently charged with sodomy and corruption, and spent six years in jail.

He then led the previously ineffectual political opposition to strong electoral showings in 2008 and 2013, until he was jailed again in 2016 by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

In September that year, Dr Mahathir turned up in a court and shook hands with Mr Anwar in a show of support to his former deputy’s bid to challenge a new security law, as they put aside 18 years of differences and worked together to subsequently oust BN in the May 9 General Election.

Days after the historic triumph, Dr Mahathir secured a royal pardon for Mr Anwar.

PKR leaders say Mr Anwar is satisfied to play his role as a backbencher for now and focus on playing a check-and-balance role in parliament by looking at institutional reforms, including a review of the affirmative action policy, as well as improvements in government procurement and the anti-graft agency to make it an independent body.

"Anwar has made it clear that he wants to focus on parliamentary reforms and let Dr Mahathir have the reins of governance. We all knew this and respect the decision," said PKR vice-president Tian Chua.

Indeed, Mr Anwar himself has taken pains to explain that he is not hankering for any Cabinet posts, and is in no hurry to take over from Dr Mahathir.

"I stand by my earlier decision. I don't intend to serve in any position, and I am happy with this position (as backbencher)," he told the Malaysian media after taking his oath of office in Parliament on Monday.

Observers say that although he has no Cabinet posts, Mr Anwar would still be effective in pushing through reforms under the PH government through his stature as a veteran politician. He was Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the mid-90s, and was recently elected PKR President.

He would also not be constrained by having to oversee a Cabinet portfolio and a ministry.

“He will be effective through the sheer force of his personality and his position as a senior politician in Malaysia,” said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

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