Richard Cockett looks at the unlikely alliance of old enemies seeking to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak

By any standards, Malaysian politics is unusually cynical, opportunist and malicious. Even so, it is hard to credit the latest move by the opposition to defeat Najib Razik at the next general election, due no later than August of next year.

Long-time foes and rivals Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former prime minister, and Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition currently serving a jail sentence for sodomy, have buried the hatchet, so they claim, and teamed up to form a new opposition alliance, called Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Pact of Hope). Together they hope to topple Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and his ruling Barisan Nacional (BN) coalition. Mahathir and Anwar have many mountains to climb; the BN has ruled the country continuously since independence from Britain in 1957.

Yet consider the historical animosity between these two men. It has, in many ways, come to define modern Malaysian politics. When Mahathir, as the then-leader of UMNO, was riding high as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Anwar was very much the golden boy and heir apparent. But the prickly, combative and jealous Mahathir turned on Anwar in 1998, during the midst of the Asian financial crisis, sacked him and then had him jailed on trumped-up charges of sodomy, a grievous crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Upon his release in 2004 Anwar became the leader of the opposition, contesting the next general elections as head of his own coalition of parties. Broadly, whereas Mahathir stood firmly for the continuing privileges of ethnic Malays in the country, Anwar has come to represent the more liberal and progressive vision of Malaysia in which all ethnic groups, principally Chinese, Indians, the indigenous peoples of north Borneo, as well as Malays, should enjoy the same rights and opportunities.

The historical animosity between Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim has come to define modern Malaysian politics

The restless Mahathir, however, fell out with Najib a few years ago. In part, he believed that the prime minister was becoming too liberal for his taste. More importantly, however, Najib refused to promote Mahathir’s son Mukhriz into one of UMNO’s top positions. With the political mixing poisonously with the personal, their jousting morphed into a battle for the soul of UMNO, in which Mahathir, to many people’s surprise, was outmanoeuvred by Najib. Consequently Mahathir last year formed his own breakaway, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu (roughly the United Indigenous Party), composed largely of disgruntled castaways from UMNO.

Now sharing the same enemy (Najib) as Anwar, the two started talking, and have now officially teamed up. Anwar, currently serving another jail term on yet another trumped-up charge of sodomy, has been declared the de facto leader of their new alliance, PH, while Mahathir is chairman. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, who usually stands in for Anwar during his incarcerations, is president of the party; vice-presidencies have been allocated to leaders of other parties in the new coalition, most importantly Lim Guan Eng of the largely ethnic-Chinese DAP.

In its defence, the best that could be said of this unlikely confection is that desperate times call for desperate measures. In purely electoral terms, so the argument runs, the two need each other. At the last election, in 2013, Anwar’s opposition won a majority of the popular vote, but, due to the egregiously gerrymandered electoral system, still failed to win enough seats to cause an upset. It was a heart-breaking result for Anwar. Though undoubtedly a moral victory, the closest that the opposition had ever come to ending the hegemony of UMNO and the BN, it was still a loss.

Whereas Anwar polled well in the cities, and with ethnic Chinese and Indian voters, his coalition failed to pick up enough rural Malay voters – the bumiputra – who happen to return the most MPs. This is where Mahathir might be able to help, however. With his record of supporting Malay privileges, he should be able to penetrate those parts of the country, particularly the Malay heartlands, that Anwar has failed to reach. The combination should be able to finally overhaul UMNO and install Anwar – or Mahathir – in Putrajaya, the federal capital of Malaysia. The victory, according, to PH, will triumphantly heal Malaysia’s divisions, exacerbated by the corrupt and divisive rule of Najib.

That’s the theory, at least. There are several flaws in the plan, however. As Nurul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter and a leading light in the opposition, concedes, Mahathir has a ‘mixed impact’ on Malaysia’s electorate. Yes, Mahathir is popular among much of the bumiputra. They hark back to his premiership as a golden age for Malays, and the Tiger economy more generally. But he is reviled by the so-called reformasi – Izzah’s own generation – who grew up as disciples of Anwar’s reforming vision of the county in the late 1990s and 2000s.

They remember Mahathir as an authoritarian racist, a bully and a thug who locked up his opponents, silenced the media and held Malaysia back from becoming a modern multi-cultural democracy. How many of them will now want to support, let alone campaign, for a platform that includes him? And if the opposition does win power finally, would Mahathir not fight to stop all the reforms that they have been hoping for? It is clear that Mahathir’s fight with Najib is personal – he has not suddenly changed all his lifelong political convictions at the age of 92. And given his record, Mahathir is hardly a politician to be trusted.

Nurul Izzah argues, however, that in the present circumstances Malaysians have to be ‘pragmatic’. She says that it was not easy to reconcile with Mahathir, but the fact is that at the last election ‘we did not get the majority of Malay or indigenous support. We need their votes… we are victims of the flawed democracy that we live in.’ She promises that she will be ‘ever watchful’ of the reform process within the new alliance, to safeguard it from Mahathir. Hopefully, one of the first things that a new government would do is to appoint a genuinely independent electoral commission, to reform the electoral system. Only then will Malaysians actually get the government that they have voted for.

Plans are afoot to topple Najib Razik’s UMNO and his ruling Barisan Nacional coalition
Plans are afoot to topple Najib Razik’s UMNO and his ruling Barisan Nacional coalition

It is also unclear who would actually be prime minister in the event of an opposition win. The leaders of PH hedge their bets on this matter. Anwar would still be in prison to start with, so Mahathir could become the interim leader. Some analysts argue that this would help the opposition, as it would make an opposition win more acceptable to the Malay establishment, deeply suspicious of Anwar’s liberalism and his close links to the non-Malay DAP. The establishment also fears that Anwar would end the ‘special rights’ contracts for Malay businesses; Mahathir enthusiastically defends this. But would he really relinquish power to let Anwar take over?

Malaysia’s reformasi remember Mahathir as an authoritarian racist and thug who held the country back from becoming a modern multi-cultural democracy

These ambiguities and uncertainties risk unravelling under the pressures of the close-quarter combat of a Malaysian election campaign. Najib’s election strategists have money to burn, and must be licking their lips at the prospect of exposing all the old wounds and divisions between Mahathir and Anwar. With Mahathir on board, the opposition risks forfeiting its credibility as a genuinely reforming party, as a real alternative to Najib. It will be easy to picture him as nothing more than a bitter old man bent on personal revenge.

Thus after a disastrous term in office, beset by corruption scandals, mainly the 1MDB scandal, in which he was accused of personally receiving over $600m from a state investment fund, Najib could well stagger on. That would be a setback for Malaysia, and the region. Immediately after the last election, stung by his fall in support, Najib quickly began to retreat on his own promises of reform, to shore up his own support amongst the bumiputra. Expect more of the same at the forthcoming election, and yet more of the same from Mahathir.

This won’t move Malaysia any closer towards resolving its basic quandary: how to incorporate the non-Malays into the mainstream of public life on an equal footing, so the country can benefit from the very obvious talents of all its people. Other South-East Asian countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar, are retreating further into authoritarianism and sectarianism. Judging by the prospects for the next general election, Malaysia is heading in the same direction.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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