KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim, who spent two stints in prison on dubious sodomy charges, took a step closer to succeeding current leader Mahathir Mohamad on Saturday when he was elected to Parliament in a special election.
Unofficial results showed that Anwar, 71, handily won the ballot in Port Dickson, an industrial port town near Kuala Lumpur.
The victory effectively starts the clock ticking on when 93-year-old Mahathir will eventually hand power to his presumed heir after the former enemies joined forces in national elections last May to defeat former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a financial scandal at a state investment fund.
The exact timing of the transition is unclear, but as of Saturday, the count showed that Anwar has garnered over 30,000 votes, significantly more than the 22,000 required to win.
In interviews, Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years before coming out of retirement, has declined to lay out a precise timeline.
He has frequently said that he would like to stay on as prime minister for around two years, while Anwar has made a point of saying he will not press for a quick handover.
Their alliance is nonetheless a striking turn of events.
The two men have butted horns for years. Anwar served as Mahathir’s deputy premier before Mahathir fired him in 1998 in the middle of a power struggle.
Police subsequently arrested Anwar on sodomy charges, and he spent six years in prison before the conviction was overturned.
After his release from prison, when Mahathir had already retired, Anwar emerged as leader of Malaysia’s opposition. He led a multiethnic coalition to come within a whisker of power in 2013.
Anwar was then sentenced to five years in prison in 2015 for additional sodomy charges during Najib’s premiership, which he also denied.
He was released from prison and granted a royal pardon when Mahathir abandoned the then-ruling United Malays National Organization to lead a new coalition to victory and promised to pass the premiership to Anwar.
Anwar didn’t immediately comment on the election outcome.
In previous interviews, Anwar has said he is grateful for Mahathir, and forgives his former boss for his arrest in the 1990s, though Mahathir himself has never apologized.
Najib, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty to over two dozen charges relating to nearly $700 million dollars that passed from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. to his private accounts.