February 6, 2020 / 3:55 PM / 23 days ago

After two-decade quest to become Malaysia's PM, Anwar says can wait a bit more

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim said on Thursday he was ready to wait for six more months beyond the initially agreed May deadline to take over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad, and that he had enough support in parliament to do so.

Malaysia's politician Anwar Ibrahim speaks during an interview with Reuters in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Mahathir led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, or Alliance of Hope, to a stunning victory in a general election in May 2018, joining hands with former enemies including Anwar to bring down Najib Razak, who is facing multiple charges of corruption mostly linked to the looting of sovereign fund 1MDB.

Mahathir had promised to hand over the premiership to Anwar within two years of the general election result, but later said he would stay on until at least November to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November.

The 94-year-old also said Anwar would have to secure parliamentary majority to become prime minister.

“You’ve waited 20 years, extending six months doesn’t actually matter,” Anwar told Reuters at his private office, expressing confidence that the coalition allies would stand behind him, as they did for Mahathir.

“If there’s a request to go back to parliament, of course it can be done, but PH has the majority right now. Even those who are not in PH, some would support the PM of the day. I also have been given that assurance. They support Mahathir as the PM, and they will continue to support me when I assume the premiership.”

Anwar had served as deputy prime minister and finance minister during Mahathir’s first 22-year stint in office, but was sacked in 1998 after falling out with Malaysia’s “Old Man” over how to defend the economy against the Asian Financial Crisis.

Going into opposition, Anwar quickly drew support from a large section of Malay Muslims, the multi-cultural country’s dominant ethnic group, to form the Reformasi movement, before being jailed a year later on corruption and sodomy charges that he said were politically motivated.

In the years following his release, Anwar rebuilt his following and came close to defeating Najib, another Mahathir protege, in the disputed 2013 general election. Two years later, he was jailed, once again on sodomy charges that he denied.

He was released on a royal pardon soon after Najib lost power in the 2018 election.

In total, Anwar had spent close to 10 years in prison as a result of the two convictions.

But controversy continued to dog the 72-year-old, after a former aide last year accused him of trying to force him to have sex in September 2018. The solicitor-general last month ruled out pressing charges against Anwar over the allegations, which the politician described as “politics at its worst”.

Same-sex acts are illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

“Of course I have many political foes. The corrupt few will do whatever it takes to ensure that I do not assume office,” said Anwar, dressed in a casual blue chequered-shirt.

BURIED HATCHET

The protracted feud between Mahathir and Anwar, the country’s two most charismatic politicians, has dominated Malaysian politics for decades.

Since his release, Anwar has stayed out of government, biding his time while his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has served as deputy prime minister to Mahathir.

Anwar said he was ready to move on from the bitter past, and that he would be willing to carve out space for Mahathir to continue to contribute after he takes over as prime minister.

“His presence in a way... would certainly help boost the general confidence and give some sort of semblance of stability and order,” Anwar said, using Mahathir’s honorific.

“There will be no real drastic policy difference. There would be different emphasis, of course, but on a personal basis, I certainly welcome very much his presence and contribution in any way.”

He would, however, look to mend soured ties with India after Mahathir’s criticism of New Delhi’s two recent policies led to a massive fall in palm oil trade between the countries.

One thing that will not change is Malaysia’s demand for reparations from Goldman Sachs over its role in the multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Anwar said.

Slideshow (3 Images)

He repeated Mahathir’s position that the U.S. bank’s initial settlement offer of over $1 billion was too small, but declined to say how much he felt was sufficient compensation.

“Certainly the amount has to be substantial, because we’re looking not only at the loss of dollars, but the loss of reputation, investments, and the perception about Malaysia,” Anwar said.

Goldman has said it is discussions with authorities on a possible resolution of investigations relating to 1MDB.

Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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