Mahathir — what next?

Dr Imran Khalid
LAST few weeks have seen some extremely abrupt and dramatic changes in the political arena of Malaysia. The electoral victory of Mahathir Mohamad, release of victorious opposition alliance’s icon, Anwar Ibrahim, from the jail and the start of massive investigations into the corruption scandal of former Premier Najib Razak have literally put the already volatile Malaysian politics into new phase of swift twists and turns. Indubitably, there is a glamorous touch to the phenomenal election triumph of 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, which is being eulogized as an extraordinary victory of people power over corruption in Malaysia. But the bitter fact is that the situation is not as perky and cheerful as being projected by Mahathir-Anwar alliance and their associates. It is certainly a stunning comeback.
Mahathir, previously Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003, has returned back as the head of an opposition coalition with a big bang and defeated his former protege Najib Razak and effectively put a full stop to six decades of one-party rule in the country. The unlikely alliance of Mahathir and Anwar has been one of the many unusual aspects of this election. When Mahathir was prime minister the first time round, Anwar was his protege and deputy, tipped for the top job until Mahathir thought he was growing out of his boots and becoming too powerful. After a prosecution for corruption and sodomy that was widely perceived to be politically motivated and fabricated, he was jailed in 1999. Mahathir Mohamad is generally labelled, and rightly so, as the main architect of new and modern Malaysia. He spearheaded the transition of Malaysia from an under developed country to a developing nation that became regional leader in a short time.
However, things started heating up when Najib Razak took over charge as Prime Minster in 2009 and corruption charges against him and his team started making rounds in the media – particularly after the surfacing of 1MDB scandal in 2015. The blatant and chronic corruption among the ruling elite was the prime reason that coerced Mahathir to return back to politics after 15 years. The announcement of his candidacy for the job of prime minister was perhaps the most jolting one. He registered a new political party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and joined the new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) that was founded as a coalition of left-leaning and centre parties. The political analysts were shaky about the success of the aged Mahathir in this election. They were expecting that Najib Razak will use his immense treasure of looted money to execute an aggressive election campaign and will manipulate the voting process to thwart Mahathir’s attempt at premiership.
At the same time, Mahathir had to struggle to shed off his image of a dictator, who sacked dissenting judges, censored inconvenient journalists, imprisoned his political opponents and dismissed various human rights issues during his two decades of premiership. But Mahathir, being the most experienced veteran politician there, played his cards very well to steal the victory. His campaign’s main focus was Najib’s corruption, a controversial goods and services Tax (GST) and resumption of fuel subsidies that had directly affected the cost of living of most of the Malaysians. Mahathir made 1MDB the main focus of his campaign.
The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-run strategic development company, the Malaysian government fund that was set up and overseen by Najib, which had $3.2bn embezzled from it. Najib was accused of using this money on a global spending spree of mammoth, indulgent proportions. It was further alleged that $681m of the money was channelled to Najib’s own bank account, funding his wife’s multimillion pound jewellery habit etc. Mahathir used this 1MDB scandal very effectively to lure a support from the voters. A major factor in Mahathir’s election victory was his populist pledges to remove Malaysia’s new goods and services tax (GST) – an unpopular tax on consumption – and to restore fuel subsidies.
Now that Mahathir has sworn in as the world’s oldest prime minister and Anwar Ibrahim has been released from the prison, the optimistic version of the story goes like this: Mahathir’s return to power will herald the beginning of new phase where justice will be executed and corrupt officials will be subjected to the rigorous accountability, then Mahathir will be replaced by Anwar within two years, fulfilling the pre-poll accord between the two. Then Anwar, being a highly competent and reformist statesman, will steer Malaysia towards the economic revival. But pragmatically speaking, things will not be as rosy as being seen by some quarters.
The very first question is about the mutual relationship between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has had a topsy-turvy relationship with his protégé-turned-rival-turned-ally, despite being coalition partner with Anwar, has to make a lot of changes in his leadership style to keep the coalition intact. His dictatorial instinct may hamper the smooth running of the government. Mahathir’s position is no more as strong as in the past. He will have to make a lot of changes in his working style in handling the government affairs, while keeping a smooth working relationship with Anwar, who must have been eager to take the charge of affairs. Yes Mahathir has changed, but he needs to accommodate his biggest coalition partner for a smooth run till the time he hands over the reins of power to Anwar.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.

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