The battle lines for Malaysia's 14th General Election have been laid, with the 92-year-old former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, teaming up with Malaysian opposition parties in a bid to oust the current premier, Najib Abdul Razak, and wrest power away from the United Malays National Organization, which has led the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition since independence in 1963.
According to UMNO insiders, Najib is extremely confident. He believes the Barisan, which also includes the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, could – with the help of almost-brutal gerrymandering – win as 140 seats in the 222-member parliament and, if things break their way, even take back 148-vote two-thirds majority that the coalition had held for decades
Mahathir’s selection as potential premier, opposition leaders say, could dramatically change that equation and bring down a party and coalition rife with corruption and cronyism. Individuals close to Najib have been charged in the biggest kleptocracy case ever brought by the United States Justice Department, which has confiscated a vast array of Malaysian-owned assets in the United States.
At the center of Malaysia’s politics is a racial calculus in which Malays fear that the Chinese, who dominate the country’s business world, would come to dominate the political one as well.
With Mahathir at the helm, analysts say, Najib – picked as a protégé decades ago by Mahathir – can’t blame the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party for being the driving force for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. During his years as prime minister, Mahathir was a Malay supremacist even though he is only half-Malay. His father came from the Indian subcontinent.
Nor could Najib use the argument that the Chinese will take over the nation, which has been a hobgoblin to frighten the rural Malay electorate for decades. Mahathir, who dominated UMNO and Malaysian politics as head of UMNO for 23 years from 1981 to 2003, is legally a Malay Muslim.
Mahathir is the undisputed come-back kid. The party he founded, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), has managed to unite the leaders of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Aminah, a splinter that split away from the rural-based, fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.
The much-awaited GE-14 is expected to be a viciously contested general election. It will also be Najib's toughest. On Jan. 8, Pakatan Harapan announced that Mahathir would be their interim prime minister until Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic opposition figure who has been imprisoned on what many consider to be spurious charges since 2015, would be freed. This was not the news that Najib wanted.
Social media has been abuzz with views about Mahathir's nomination, including a report that Najib's adviser, Habibur Rahman, had approached both DAP leader Lim Guan Eng and Anwar’s daughter Nurul separately to offer them "attractive incentives” to try and broker a deal. His request was simple. He did not want DAP or PKR to withdraw from the election, or to support BN in GE-14. He merely wanted them to reject the nomination of Mahathir as the interim candidate for the opposition coalition. The request was reportedly rejected outright.
Anti-Mahathir critics have issued stark warnings amid signs that they are ganging-up on the former premier, an authoritarian figure who ruled the country with an iron fist, at one point triggering a roundup called Operation Lalang that swept up journalists, civil libertarians and the opposition figures with whom he is now making common cause without habeas corpus and jailing them for months under the country’s colonial-era Internal Security Act.
It is unknown if Mahathir has belatedly discovered, now that he is on the other side, the value of a free press and an independent parliament and judiciary and the other institutions that he neutered as the country’s leader.
One Perak based-political observer called Mahathir “damaged goods. His gambles and ego projects, such as attempting to corner the tin market, huge forex losses, (the Proton national car project) and the Petronas Twin Tower, have cost the nation too much.
"He caused irreparable damage to our judiciary; entrenched institutional racism in the country and started the slide in our educational standards. He cannot be trusted to run the country again – even for a day."
Kua Kia Soong, the director of Suaram, a Human Rights NGO, who was jailed Operation Lalang, has continued to demand that Mahathir enumerate the sins he has committed and apologize for each of them.
Kua has been slammed for his intransigence and his refusal to see the bigger picture, which is to get rid of Najib and win GE-14.
One person said, "Can he not see that Mahathir can win over more Malay voters? Does he think that the opposition will allow themselves to be under Mahathir's yoke, if they win GE-14?"
Another political observer from Singapore said, "Dr M can shift 5 percent of Malay votes, which no other leader could. That can be critical."
Last December, when it was first mooted that Mahathir would become the interim PM, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, described it as a “sad day” for the opposition, and said, "...they have been in the political arena for so long, but they couldn’t find a younger candidate or fresh blood to become the leader of Malaysia. It’s sad and actually surprising, and I do not think it will go down well with the people.”
Khairy Jamaluddin, the Sports Minister, has waded into the debate about Mahathir's nomination and said that the country will be plunged into chaos and political instability.
When Mahathir wrote his controversial book "The Malay Dilemma," he was not afraid to list the Malays' shortcomings, but he gave them a new sense of identity. The Ketuanan (Malays first) myth.
One political analyst said, "Although Ketuanan Melayu was detrimental to the young democracy, it provided the desired momentum to drive the Malays from their feudal mentality. With Mahathir's affirmative action policies, the Malay middle class grew, but so did their ego and greed. They cast aside their moral values. For many, there was no going back."
The upcoming general election will undisputedly be one of many firsts and ironies.
In GE-14, the PM and his former mentor will face one another from opposite sides of the political divide. Mahathir didn’t figure the "self-styled First Lady of Malaysia" (FLOM) into the mentoring equation. The equally power hungry and ambitious Rosmah Mansor is believed to be the driving force behind Najib, who redrew the political script.
The other irony is that Mahathir was rescued from the political wilderness by Razak Hussein, Najib's father, when he was banned from UMNO in 1969 for insubordination towards Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister.
Today, Mahathir seeks to destroy the political future of his savior's son.
The problems such as cronyism and Malay nationalism that plague Malaysia today had their roots during Mahathir's tenure. The controls that the nation's founding fathers formulated, such as the independence of the judiciary, were dismantled by Mahathir.
Mahathir clipped the wings of the country’s nine sultans, whom he felt were abusing their power, especially when it was alleged that he had to rescue at least one sultan from gambling debts and placate an angry public when another sultan was accused of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a subject.
If he were to win GE-14, would he continue to follow this path? Some members of the rakyat would like to think that he would.
Today, despite criticizing Mahathir for his past policies, Najib has honed them.
Najib has until August 2018 to call the elections, but he is aware that timing is everything. The indications are that he will call GE-14 after the Chinese New Year, which falls on 16 February. He will not wait till after June, because that is when Anwar Ibrahim is due to be released. With his release, a newly energized rakyat would demand that Anwar be pardoned and be made the PM. Najib cannot afford to have this happen.
Najib cannot hold GE-14 now, because the Selangor state’s redistricting exercise will not be complete until March. Selangor is the jewel in the economic crown. If he could wrest Selangor from the opposition, it would be a political coup.
Najib had hoped to put Pakatan Harapan on the spot, and to capitalize on the fact that the opposition coalition is currently leaderless. But the announcement of Mahathir’s opposition leadership put paid to that. Mahathir as interim PM does not auger well for Najib.
In the past, Najib and his political machinery focused their attacks on Anwar, then shifted the focus onto the DAP. Observers will have noticed the drip-drip effect of perceived "manufactured" threats against Islam, such as a baseless claim by a pro-UMNO lecturer that Selangor State Assembly speaker Hannah Yeoh, in her book, "Becoming Hannah" was advocating converting Malays to Christianity.
In recent months, the party apparatchiks have increased their attacks against Mahathir, tell-tale signs that they see him as a serious threat. That will explain the increasing criticisms of Mahathir, his past policies and his closest aides.
The internal revenue department has scrutinized both his business friends' and sons' income tax returns. Even family members have not been spared. Mukhriz, Mahathir's son, was horrified to discover that his daughter's jet-set lifestyle was exposed.
Mahathir as the interim PM is disastrous for Najib. This will stymie UMNO’s attempt to denounce a PH PM such as Lim Kit Siang or Lim Guan Eng, because he is Chinese. Najib cannot then say that the DAP or the Chinese are dictating the charge of the Opposition.
With Mahathir at the helm, the Malays, both urban and rural, are more confident to support the Opposition. Indoctrination is strongest amongst the Malays, unlike the non-Malay community. Malays are still fearful and wary of being dominated by the Chinese. Issues like 1MDB have little traction amongst them, but the rising cost of living, and the scandals surrounding FELDA, have hurt them most.
GE-14 means different things, to different people. The rakyat sees GE-14 as a means to remove an oppressive government and put Malaysia on the right track.
Najib and Umno see GE-14 as a struggle for political survival and physical freedom. And, while a few may see the election as a clash between a mentor and his pupil, or a clash between two warlords Mahathir himself sees it as a means to restore his tarnished reputation after the decline in the moral values of the Malays, that his policies have created.
Mariam Mokhtar is a regular correspondent for Asia Sentinel