Will Anwar and Mahathir be able to put behind their animosity?
Dr Mahathir took office a second time in 2018 at the age of 92.
Despite a late attempt, Malaysia’s most potent duo in politics has failed to stop the return to power of the Umno party, which has governed the Muslim-majority country for six decades.
Malaysia’s elder statesman and former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 96, and his one time-protege Anwar Ibrahim, 74, dethroned Umno in a surprise win in the 2018 elections but last week could not prevent Umno’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob from becoming Malaysia’s third prime minister in three years.
For the last two decades, politics in Malaysia, a founding member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), has revolved around the love-hate relationship between Dr Mahathir and Anwar who have alternately feuded and joined hands, only to fall out again.
The two men had not seen eye to eye for decades since Dr Mahathir, then PM, sacked his deputy Anwar in 1998. He was subsequently jailed for abuse of power and sodomy, charges that he denied.
Their unexpected unity in 2016, when Anwar was still in jail, was forged to seek the ouster of then PM Najib Tun Razak who was implicated in the world’s largest corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB. Dr Mahathir took office a second time in 2018 at the age of 92 with the understanding that Anwar would succeed him as PM within an unspecified timeframe and lead their Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope) in the next election due in 2023.
But less than halfway through his five-year term, Dr Mahathir called Anwar unfit to steer Malaysia. This precipitated the collapse of Dr Mahathir’s government in February 2020 and enabled the rise of fellow partyman Muhyiddin Yassin who took over with a thin parliamentary majority with support from Umno, the very party that Mahathir-Anwar had dislodged from power.
Muhyiddin proved to be Malaysia’s shortest-serving PM. He was ousted after just 17 months in office amid mounting public anger as Malaysia became engulfed in one of south-east Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. It has logged around 20,000 daily infections over the past month, with 250,000 active cases and over 12,500 fatalities. With only a third of its 32 million population having been fully vaccinated and the trek to herd immunity by October-end hobbled by the lack of vaccines, the government gratefully accepted the UAE’s offer of one million vaccine doses earlier this month.
Muhyiddin’s hand was forced when a chunk of his allies pulled support, blaming him for mishandling the Covid-19 crisis. Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, the constitutional monarch, ruled out snap polls, plunging the nation into yet another bout of political turbulence.
As the country launched its quest to find its fourth prime minister in three years, an intriguing question was whether Anwar, tagged in the Malaysian media as the perpetual ‘PM-in-waiting’, would finally come to power with blessings from Dr Mahathir. Although he heads a small party with only four lawmakers in parliament, Dr Mahathir is the world’s longest-serving premier with a total of 24 years in office, and remains an influential figure on the national stage.
The two men hit headlines earlier this month, appearing at an anti-government protest, in a moment that seemed to eclipse their long and bitter rivalry. With only 88 MPs in his three-party Pakatan Harapan pact, Anwar was short of 23 to hit the simple majority of 111 in a 222-seat parliament where two seats lie vacant. Dr Mahathir, commanding the support of 17 MPs, swung to Anwar although without making a single statement in his support. But that gambit failed when the 15 MPs who had pulled the rug under Muhyiddin’s feet banded together to support his deputy Ismail Sabri Yaakob who was sworn in as PM last Saturday.
That leaves Anwar nourishing frustrated ambitions — but not without hope. The new government has a razor-thin majority of three MPs, keeping it vulnerable. Will the government last its term? “The picture would be clearer after the ministers are appointed and sworn in,” says Kevin Zhang, research officer, Malaysian Studies, at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Clearly, powerful interests have to be balanced, egos assuaged and unexpected bumps in the road negotiated.
What appears certain is that the next election — due only in 2023 but could well be triggered earlier — will be Anwar’s battleground. The question is how well he can use the breathing space to gather his forces. His biggest challenge will be that he must compete with his former party, Umno, to carry the Malay ground. Blessings from Dr Mahathir, the longtime champion of Malay rights, may be necessary but not sufficient for his mission.
And questions remain over whether the two men will ever patch up. “The Anwar-Mahathir animosity is not really over. Anwar’s supporters, which include the liberal Malays in Kuala Lumpur, have not forgotten how he was repeatedly betrayed by Dr Mahathir,” says Zhang.
No one can say Anwar has not waited his turn.
Ravi Shankar is a senior journalist based in Singapore.
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