Back to the future in Malaysia?

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When we were young: Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim (L) pray during the United Malays National Organization party's 50th anniversary celebration in a 1996 file photo. Photo: AFP / Francis Silvan

As Malaysia moves into a new election season, 92-year-old ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad is increasingly seen as the opposition’s best bet to unseat incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak’s scandal-plagued government.

New elections must be held by August 2018 and no date has been set yet, but the country has unmistakably entered campaign mode as both ruling and opposition coalitions have intensified politicking in recent weeks. Reports quoting government insiders say the polls could be held as early as September.

Mahathir, who has been involved in Malaysia’s politics for six decades and previously ruled with an iron fist for 22 consecutive years, has emerged at the symbolic front of an opposition coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, that will run campaign on the need for more accountable, transparent and liberal governance.

While some analysts believe Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and its Barisan National (BN) coalition will ride the power of incumbency to another election win, extending the party’s six-decade hold on power, there are clear weaknesses in its standing after two years of bruising high-level corruption allegations.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysian Prime Minister Razak Najib waves to photographers upon arrival at the Manila International Airport in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/File Photo

Scandal-plagued: Malaysian Prime Minister Razak Najib waves to photographers upon arrival in Manila, Philippine, April 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

If anyone can make trouble on the hustings for the scandal-plagued Najib, it’s the wily Mahathir, who brings extensive insider knowledge of UMNO’s workings and failings. He strategically split the party in the 1980’s and strongly led its subsequent incarnation as a development-driven personality cult.

Mahathir has mercilessly seized on Najib’s political troubles related to the multi-billion dollar scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund Najib founded and heads. While Najib has avoided domestic charges for over US$4 billion of apparently pilfered funds, the scandal is being vigorously pursued overseas, including by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

Najib has denied any foul play and even claimed the US DoJ investigations are a political plot being orchestrated by the political opposition to bump his elected government from power. But the issue is expected to feature prominently in the opposition’s campaign strategy to poke holes in Najib’s and UMNO’s credibility and legitimacy.

FILE PHOTO: Traffic passes a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 6, 2015. REUTERS/Olivia Harris/File Photo

Moving target: Traffic passes a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 6, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

Revelations around the missing funds, some analysts suggest, could also hamper UMNO’s ability to mobilize state funds for campaign purposes, an advantage the party has leveraged to strategic effect in the past.

Long-time spoiler

Mahathir, a trained medical doctor, has long played the role of spoiler in the country’s topsy-turvy politics. He joined UMNO soon after its formation in 1946 and first made a young turk name for himself by clashing with the country’s first Prime Minister and then UMNO president, Abdul Rahman Putra.

In Malaysia’s first post-colonial general election in 1959, Mahathir, then serving as UMNO’s Kedah State chairman, did not contest a seat following disagreement over policy issues with Abdul Rahman.

He later sacked Mahathir after the latter penned an open letter calling for the premier’s resignation after the deadly 1969 race riots between ethnic Malays and Chinese, an event that gave birth to the country’s still prevailing affirmative action policies that favor majority Malays (60% of the population) over minority Chinese (25%) and Indians (7%).

Abdul Rahman’s successor, Abdul Razak Hussein, personally invited Mahathir back to the party less than a year later, ushering the young doctor’s rise as an appointed senator in 1973 and soon thereafter as a Minister of Education. Mahathir repaid that political debt by helping to nurture Abdul Razak’s son, Najib, through appointments culminating in bringing him into his Cabinet as Minister of Defense in 1991.

Mahathir publicly supported Najib’s bid to become prime minister in 2009 after sniping continuously at his immediate successor Abdullah Badawi for failing to maintain some of his big ticket economic development projects and live up to his strong leader legacy.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the nation in a National Day message in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur August 30, 2015. Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, joining anti-government protesters for a second day on Sunday, called for a "people's power" movement to topple Najib over a financial scandal. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RTX1QA4Q

Flagging legitimacy: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the nation in a National Day address on August 30, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

Mahathir has since said that he made the “wrong decision” to support Najib’s bid for the premiership and pivoted to become his most vocal and withering opposition critic. He has even joined street protests calling for his ouster through “people power.”

Lessons in hypocrisy

Critics highlight the hypocrisy in Mahathir’s late-in-life calls for good governance and political liberalness. Mahathir ruled in an autocratic style they say set the stage for UMNO’s now widely seen as prevalent corruption, cronyism and opaque governance.

University of Chicago associate professor Dan Slater has written that most of Najib’s messes are “Mahathir-made.” “Like Mahathir, Najib assumed autocratic control over the economy and embarked on reckless borrowing and investment schemes, especially 1MDB.”

While Mahathir was never formally accused of pilfering state funds, many of the government spending projects he promoted were of questionable design and often directly benefitted his groomed business associates – giving rise to the “crony capitalism” accusations that hit Malaysia during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

He also set UMNO’s tough standard for crushing political dissent. Mahathir famously sacked and jailed his deputy and now opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim on trumped up corruption and sodomy charges, the latter a criminal offense in the Muslim majority nation.

A combination photo shows Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in their offices in Malaysia on May 4, 2011 (L) and March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/Files

Frenemies: Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

Under Najib, Anwar was sentenced again on the sex-related charges in 2015 and is currently being held behind bars on what are widely viewed as politicized charges. It was thus a bitter sweet moment when Mahathir met with Anwar in prison in a social media-friendly show of political solidarity.

Limited choices

Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), the lead party of the former Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition that won a popular majority at the 2013 polls but couldn’t take polls due to UMNO’s extensive gerrymandering, has been reluctant to hand the leadership torch to Mahathir, who now serves as chairman of the upstart Bersatu party.

Some PKR stalwarts believe the opposition should contest the election on emotive appeal with the jailed Anwar as its prime ministerial candidate, in apparent hopes that he could be sprung from prison if the reins of power are handed to the opposition in a peaceful democratic transition.

Others, however, have come around to the idea of Mahathir serving as the four-party opposition coalition’s front man. Anwar has steered the PKR in that direction, saying in a June 17 statement that he would not run for national leader and cajoling the party to stop squabbling over who should replace Najib and let the “people” make the “final decision.”

Popular discontent: Pro-democracy group “Bersih” (Clean) supporters hold anti-Najib placards in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur August 29, 2015. Photo Reuters/Edgar Su

Anwar has urged Pakatan Harapan to fix its attention instead on national-level policies, the injustices and abuses of the current political and legal systems, and on devising strategies to win the nation’s 14th general election.

“Side issues such as the struggle for power and position or a war of words in Harapan cannot be allowed,” he said in a statement released from prison. More discreetly, Anwar has apparently pushed for his wife, PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, to serve as the coalition’s chairman with Mahathir as it’s senior advisor.

Mahathir, meanwhile, has stated his willingness to accept the premiership if the opposition wins, with an eye on stepping aside mid-term to pave the way for either a freed Anwar or one of his close allies, including possibly his son, Mukhiriz Mahathir, to assume the leadership.

Mukhriz Mahathir was removed by Najib as UMNO’s head of the northern state of Kedah in February 2016 after he criticized Najib’s role in the 1MDB scandal and his government’s overall economic management.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin - RTX33ZAS

Comeback kid: Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, making a point during a press interview. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

“If there is really no candidate to become prime minister should the opposition win, then maybe for a short while I might try to take the job. But only on condition that everybody agrees,” he said at an international conference held in Tokyo in early June.

Mahathir’s 22-year tenure was looked on mostly favorably by rural Muslim constituencies that benefited from his affirmative action policies and a boom-time economy.

Other members of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, namely the multi-ethnic Democratic Action party and conservative Amanah, have more openly agreed to Mahathir’s top billing. It’s less clear where they stand on the prospect that Mahathir’s bid for power is a ploy to perpetuate his legacy through a bait-and-switch that eventually elevates his son to power.

Yet Mahathir has significant grass roots leverage to press his point with the coalition. Najib’s UMNO has long played on the country’s racial politics to win votes among conservative-leaning rural Malay Muslims. Najib has recently wooed the Islamist Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, that garnered Pakatan Rakyat crucial rural votes at the 2013 election.

Analysts note that Mahathir’s 22-year tenure was looked on mostly favorably by rural Muslim constituencies that benefited from his affirmative action policies and a boom-time economy. Whether Mahathir can translate those memories into votes is an open question, but the prospect of UMNO finally losing power would be rich against the same politician who largely built its now shaky foundations.

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