KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – 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 ralling cry — he vowed to hundreds of journalists, supporters and admiring prison guards to support the new government s efforts to clean up the country.
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. I must thank the people of 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 but suffered a spectacular falling out with his then-boss Mahathir in the late 1990s and was thrown in jail after being convicted of sodomy and abuse of power.
Upon his release the first time, he joined and revitalised the opposition coalition that finally ousted BN last week.
Anwar s release from his second jail term 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 — who sacked Anwar and had him jailed in 1998 — 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. 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 a disparate opposition first assembled by Anwar to a upset victory, fuelled by rising public anger at a massive government corruption scandal under Najib.
Many had expected BN to coast to victory given 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 stands accused of presiding over the plundering of the state investment fund 1MDB which 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 the dizzying sense of change sweeping the country and is likely to fuel public 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.” Talib Ibrahim, 60, a supporter waiting at the Kuala Lumpur hospital, said Anwar s release was “good for the country”.
“He did good (before) and can do good for the whole of Malaysia,” he said. Anwar cannot directly join the government anytime soon.
He must first be elected to parliament, having been stripped of his seat in 2015 when his conviction on charges of sodomising a young male aide was upheld on appeal and he went to jail a second time.
That conviction is viewed by many as having been orchestrated by Najib s government to neutralise Anwar s rising 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 over a number of issues, resulting in the popular Anwar s imprisonment, which triggered unprecedented protests.
After six years in jail, Anwar used his star power to unite the previously hapless opposition before the latest sodomy charges cast him once again into the political wilderness.