Defeat for Malaysia’s Mahathir?

A seemingly obscure state by-election in Kedah yesterday may have signaled the cresting of the influence of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who put all of his resources and those of his son, Mukhriz, into a vain effort to defeat the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia candidate.

The 49-year-old Mukhriz, elected chief minister of the conservative, Malay-dominated northern state in May national elections, made the attempt to wrest the district from PAS into a personal battle by offering to become an “honorary assemblyman” for the constituency. His 88-year-old father stumped the district energetically for the Barisan candidate, visiting party leaders including those from PAS in the attempt to take the seat. The Barisan Nasional shuttled in cabinet ministers including United Malays National Organization Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister, and others, to walk the precincts.

It was estimated by PAS officials that the Barisan dumped RM15 million (US$4.72 million) on the district, with about 25,000 voters, in the form of government grants to schools and mosques and other largesse, including selling rice, sugar and other commodities at a fraction of their true value, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based news website Malaysian Insider.

Nonetheless, PAS’s Mohamad Azam Abdul Samat outpolled the UMNO candidate, Ahmad Sohaimi, by 12,069 votes to Ahmad’s 10,975. The seat had been previously held by the late former Kedah chief minister, Mohamad Azam, who died recently after having won five straight elections since 1995 in the constituency.

Given the amount of resources thrown at the effort, political analysts were calling the defeat the second one for Mahathir after failing to demonstrate enough clout to deliver Mukhriz to a seat as one of UMNO’s three vice presidents in elections held in October, an indication that his power to influence the party is waning despite his continuing popularity with the rank and file.

Mukhriz harbors ambitions of following his father’s footsteps eventually into the premiership and his father harbors ambitions of getting him there. However, in previous party elections, he lost his campaign to become head of the youth wing to Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah Badawi’s son in law, who is now a close ally of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. With these two defeats, Malaysia’s legions of news sites, many of them aligned with the opposition, have sprouted doubts about his abilities.

Mukhriz himself said he accepted the voters’ decision, but pointed out that the ruling coalition had cut seriously into PAS’s majority since the May 5 general election.

Mahathir left the premiership in 2003 – 10 years ago— after ruling the country for 22 years but has remained a prominent and troublesome critic of his successors, playing a major role in driving Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from the job in 2009. Last week, he blasted the current one, Najib Tun Razak, although not by name, alleging that millions had been spent in the effort to keep Mukhriz from the vice presidency in favor of the three incumbents, who have been labeled a part of “Team Najib.”

Bloggers connected to Mahathir have continued scathing criticism of Najib, although the former prime minister hasn’t yet unleashed public criticisms of the current premier as he did with Badawi. UMNO is to hold its annual general meeting on the week of December 2-7. Although some observers expect fireworks, others say Mahathir’s campaign against Najib is more muted since his wing of the party holds none of the top leadership positions.

“It’s very clear that Dr M’s influence is waning, or has been overrated,” said a veteran Kuala Lumpur-based UMNO figure. “A Kedah UMNO MP called me to tell me results. He said If Mahathir hadn’t come to campaign, we would have had a better chance. But, he added, it’s too early to count Mukhriz out although he has been hurt by the loss.

Kedah was Mahathir’s home base. He was born in the state and worked there as a doctor before he went into politics. He is also remembered, however, for his scorched-earth criticisms of fundamentalist Islam in an area that has long been a fundamentalist stronghold.

A source in the Mahathir wing of the denied that the loss of the seat diminished the former prime minister’s stature. “This is a PAS stronghold,” he said. “They won with a reduced majority. That is not good for PAS.” Mahathir, he said, remains a force despite having been retired for more than a decade.

In any case, it is clear that the Barisan pulled out all the stops in the effort to take the seat, throwing in enormous resources in the attempt to wrest the seat from PAS, seemingly an unwinnable task from the start.

Asked why Mukhriz would risk his personal prestige on a basically unwinnable seat, the source in the Mahathir wing of the party said “He had to. He’s the chief minister. It’s an election.”

The Barisan Nasional continues to hold a 21-seat majority in the 36-member state assembly.