July 3, 2017
Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics
The former Prime Minister is reinventing himself as a leader of the Opposition
The Doctor seeks a Return to the House
WHEN Mahathir Mohamad spent a week in hospital last year, at the age of 91, talk naturally turned to his legacy as Malaysia’s longest-serving former Prime Minister. How naive. Dr Mahathir may have stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office, but he has hardly been retiring in retirement. His constant sniping helped topple his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, who lasted until 2009.
Now the old warhorse is picking a fight with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister since then and now leader of Dr Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has run Malaysia for the past 60 years. Dr Mahathir has registered a new political party and persuaded Pakatan Harapan, the fractious coalition that forms Malaysia’s main opposition, to admit it as a member. Now Pakatan is debating whether to make Dr Mahathir the chairman of their coalition—and, perhaps, their candidate for Prime Minister at elections which must be held within 13 months. Having long said that he would not be returning to Parliament, Dr Mahathir has lately been hinting that he would consider another stint in the top job.
In Politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests
It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely turn of events. The original incarnation of the coalition Dr Mahathir might soon be running was formed in the late 1990s to oppose his own interminable rule. Its founder, Anwar Ibrahim, was Dr Mahathir’s deputy until the latter sacked him during a power struggle; he was later jailed on sham charges of corruption and sodomy. The current government’s methods are copied directly from Dr Mahathir’s playbook. Since 2015 Mr Anwar has been back in prison following a second sodomy conviction, this one just as dubious as the first. The reversal of the authoritarian turn Malaysia took under Dr Mahathir is one of Pakatan’s main objectives.
What makes all this even tougher to stomach is that Dr Mahathir’s conversion to the Opposition’s cause looks disturbingly incomplete. Though he is hobnobbing with former enemies, the old codger still finds it difficult to apologise for the excesses of his tenure. Many of his views remain wacky: in May he told the Financial Times that he still thinks the American or Israeli governments might have arranged the attacks of September 11th 2001. Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?
These are desperate times, retort Dr Mahathir’s supporters. Since 2015 news about the looting of 1MDB, a government-owned investment firm from which at least $4.5bn has disappeared, has dragged Malaysia’s reputation through the muck. American government investigators say that 1MDB’s money was spent on jewellery, mansions, precious artworks and a yacht, and that nearly $700m of it went to the prime minister. Mr Najib says he has not received any money from 1MDB, and that $681m deposited into his personal accounts was a gift from a Saudi Royal (now returned). He has kept his job, but only after replacing the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.
The Prognosis is that Najib Razak is likely to win GE-14
One might expect this scandal to propel Pakatan into power at the coming election, but instead the opposition looks likely to lose ground, perhaps even handing back to UMNO and its allies the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This bizarre reversal has much to do with Malaysia’s regrettable racial politics: the Malay-Muslim majority largely favours the government and the big ethnic-Chinese and -Indian minorities tend to vote against it. Mr Najib has baited an Islamist party into renewing calls for more flogging for moral lapses, forcing them to leave Pakatan. The split in the opposition will lead to lots of three-candidate races, in which UMNO will romp home.
Put in this context, Dr Mahathir’s reappearance is a godsend. It stands to transform Pakatan’s chances by granting access to a broad swathe of rural constituencies that they had previously thought unwinnable. Many Malays have fond memories of the booming economy of Dr Mahathir’s era (they overlook its crony capitalism and his intolerance for dissent); in their eyes, he put Malaysia on the map. As coalition chairman, Dr Mahathir might also bring some order to Pakatan’s noisy council meetings. His backing could be invaluable after a narrow victory or in a hung parliament, when UMNO’s creatures in the bureaucracy might be expected to put up a fight.
All these benefits could probably be obtained without offering to make Dr Mahathir the Prime Minister. But he may be the only front man upon whom most of the coalition can agree. That role had previously fallen to Mr Anwar, but it has become clear to all but a few holdouts that he cannot continue to manage the quarrelsome coalition from his cell. Voters are not sure whether to believe Pakatan when it says that, should it win, it will find some way to catapult Mr Anwar out of his chains and into the country’s top job. Nor are they much inspired by the notion of accepting a seat-warmer to run the country while this tricky manoeuvre takes place.
It could be worse
This is a depressing mess, even by Malaysia’s dismal standards. The opposition bears no blame for the dirty tricks which, over several shameful decades, the government has used to hobble Mr Anwar and many others. But by failing to nurture—or even to agree upon—the next generation of leaders, they have played straight into UMNO’s hands.
It is possible that the thought of hoisting Dr Mahathir into the top job will at last force the coalition to thrust a younger leader to the fore (some suspect that this is the outcome that Dr Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, has always had in mind). But it is also possible that, facing only uncomfortable options, they will end up making no decision at all. Some in Pakatan seem happy to barrel into the next election without telling voters who will lead Malaysia should they win. That might seem like pragmatism, but it is really just defeatism.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Doctor on call”