KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Jailed Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim walked free on Wednesday after receiving a royal pardon, paving the way for his return to national politics as the presumptive successor to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad following a stunning election upset.
Anwar emerged from a Kuala Lumpur hospital — where he had undergone surgery for a shoulder problem — after spending three years in jail on a sodomy conviction, which his supporters say was cooked up to destroy his political career.
Smiling and looking spry in a dark suit and tie, the 70-year-old gave a thumbs-up to a crowd of journalists before being whisked away by car for an audience with the country’s king.
An advocate for reform, clean government and an end to the previous government’s authoritarian ways, Anwar made no immediate comment but was expected to address the public in the afternoon followed by a political rally in the evening.
Anwar’s release caps a remarkable reversal of fortune made possible by the unexpected electoral drubbing of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that held power for the last six decades.
The 92-year-old former autocrat Mahathir — who headed BN for 22 years until 2003 — came out of retirement to lead a disparate opposition to an unexpected election victory last week amid rising anger over a massive government corruption scandal.
Mahathir has said he expects to run the government for up to two years during an uncertain transition period but has signalled the reins would be turned over to Anwar eventually.
The election has upended the political landscape of the multicultural, Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.
Many had expected BN to coast to victory given its tight hold over the media, government, police and electoral apparatus.
But observers had failed to gauge the depth of disgust with former leader Najib Razak, who stands accused of presiding over the plundering of a state investment fund he established.
Mahathir has barred Najib from leaving the country pending investigations.
The previous government was one of the world’s longest-serving, and Anwar’s release adds to the dizzying sense of change sweeping the country and is likely to fuel public expectations of a new and more open era.
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.
“I think he can bring a lot of investment back to Malaysia. Najib wasted a lot of Malaysia’s money.”
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, sending him to jail.
That conviction is viewed by many as having been orchestrated by Najib’s government to neutralise Anwar’s rising political threat.
Anwar’s release also sets up a tantalising reunion with his one-time mentor turned nemesis and now ally again — Mahathir.
The charismatic Anwar was a rising political star in the 1990s under Mahathir, heading various ministries and earning praise overseas as a reformer.
He rose quickly, eventually becoming deputy prime minister and Mahathir’s presumed successor.
But the two men had a spectacular falling-out that gripped the country. Anwar was sacked and charged with corruption and sodomy, charges seen as politically motivated. Unprecedented protests erupted.
After spending six years in jail, Anwar later used his star power to unite the previously hapless opposition before the latest sodomy charges cast him once again into the political wilderness.