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Succeeding Malaysia’s nonagenarian premier

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 30 September 2019


Before Malaysia’s federal election in May 2018, Mahathir Mohamad vowed that if he became prime minister, he would hand over the position to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. This promise has been in the forefront of the policies of the Pakatan Harapan coalition since the election, almost to the point of being a distraction to daily government business.

Mahathir has repeatedly said he will keep his promise, but at the same time made contradictory statements which have made Anwar feel very insecure. The prime minister hasn’t confirmed any handover date despite his advanced age of 94. Anwar’s continual search for support gives the appearance that he only has one ambition, that to yet be the prime minister of Malaysia.

Although Anwar is meant to take over in the not-too distant future, he has no position in the cabinet, no position in government other than being a member of parliament and is impatient. There has been deep antipathy between the two going back to 1998 when Mahathir engineered his imprisonment on sexual deviancy charges that many rights organization viewed as fabricated. Anwar knows Mahathir is hesitating and unenthusiastic. Any agreement they have can’t be legally enforced. The transfer to Anwar totally relies upon Mahathir’s goodwill.

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There is no group with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat or the Pakatan Harapan coalition lobbying for any other candidate than Anwar. However, many things have the potential to endanger the succession. If Mahathir were to become incapacitated, his deputy Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife, would become interim prime minister. Her time as deputy prime minister has shown her to waver over policy issues. Although in person she radiates charisma, she appears lackluster on television and is a poor parliamentary performer. While she does have a support base, it wouldn’t be strong enough for her to remain as prime minister, especially with Anwar in the wings.

Anwar lost credibility over a sex video of his seeming intra-party rival, Mohamed Azmin Ali, allegedly in a homosexual embrace. The Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said publicly that the leader of a political party wanted to bring down Azmin with the video clip, hinting that Anwar was behind it. The issue split Anwar’s party, which he has been unable to mend. There are rumors of an impending exit from PKR of 15 MPs to form their own party. Anwar’s own daughter quit all party positions in anger over political machinations and it’s rumored that he no longer lives with his wife. Anwar has become isolated both politically and personally.

Anwar’s next litmus test might be a by-election in the southern state of Johor where the sitting member of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu, Md Farid Md Rafik, died suddenly a heart attack. The seat will be very difficult to win, as the combined vote of the United Malays National Organization and Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS  was 2,000 more than Pakatan polled in the seat last general election.  Now the two parties have made a formal alliance against a ruling coalition that is flailing on several levels.  The by-election may well decide who should be the best prime minister to lead the campaign in the next general election.

Anwar appears to be a chameleon. He has been caught saying different things to different audiences on the same subject. He is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue or visionary on matters of policy. Criticism has been laid on Pakatan’s last election manifesto as being irresponsible. Eliminating the deeply unpopular 6 percent goods and services tax, for instance, without replacing it with some other revenue source for example has put government finances under deep stress. Anwar was a staunch promoter of crony-capitalism in the 1990s when he was deputy prime minister and came under great criticism for his handling of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1996.

Anwar has not proven himself to be a wise political strategist. His focus on urban areas during GE13 in 2013 rather than the rural heartlands cost the then-Pakatan Rakyat coalition many potential votes. A promise to take over the government that year failed.  To a great number of supporters, he is the great hope of reform. To others he is a disaster. The bottom line is no one really knows where Anwar actually stands on most issues.

However, if Mahathir decides to stay on for the full term, which ends in 2023, Anwar may never  get his chance. In the event Mahathir runs full term and calls a general election there is a strong probability the revitalized combined UMNO-PAS, with support from Sarawak, could win the election.

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If the PAS and UMNO votes in seats they competed against each other last general election were added together, Pakatan Rakyat would lose 30, giving the UMNO-PAS grouping 97 seats in the new Parliament.  With the support of 15 seats from Sarawak and Sabah, Pakatan would be defeated and Malaysia would most likely have an UMNO prime minister once again.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current UMNO president, would become the new prime minister, possibly triggering a weird scenario. The 1MDB trial to determine culpability in the theft of US$4.8 billion is droning on to a weary public. People are finding difficult to understand the 1MDB court proceedings and are starting to think if Najib Razak is not already in jail, the prosecutors are having difficulty pinning anything on him.

People are beginning to see Najib as another victim of Mahathir’s machinations. He is attracting supportive and curious crowds wherever he goes, slowly developing a celebrity status. This is now being managed and with the new UMNO-PAS alliance, there is a chance Najib could garner a sympathy vote in the next election.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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