With Malaysia’s next national election due to be held by August this year, voters will have their say on a government that over the past five years has been wracked with financial scandals, a crackdown on dissent, the jailing of the popular opposition leader, and religious bigotry fed by Islamic hardliners, not to mention a leader – a scion of the establishment – accused of massive corruption.
In a mature democracy, conditions would appear ripe for a change of government. But this is Malaysia, which has not yet experienced such an event in its 60-year history.
The UMNO party-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government has bled support from its rural, traditional Malay heartland for more than a decade, so common sense would dictate that Prime Minister Najib Razak faces an uphill task.
In the dramatic 2008 general election the BN lost its two-thirds majority, and in 2013 it actually lost the popular vote but still won the most seats due to the first-past-the-post system and rampant gerrymandering.
Those elections were notable for the presence of a credible opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, headed by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim. Its constituent parties represented disparate sectional interests, but were united by the cause of overturning ossified BN rule.
Five years later, Anwar is back in jail, and his coalition has a different name and composition (without the conservative Islamist PAS) – now led in the interim by his erstwhile patron-turned-tormentor, former PM Mahathir Mohamed. The Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition’s decision in January to anoint the 92-year-old Mahathir as their prime minister-designate is a sad reflection on the lack of dynamism in Malaysian politics, but with Anwar still in prison, there is no-one of stature who can hold the opposition parties together and challenge the UMNO stranglehold.
Addressing the annual general meeting of his newly formed political party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) in late December, the man who now finds himself leader of the same opposition politicians he used to berate and imprison, offered an apology. “Like other human beings, I’m not alone in saying or doing wrong. Not just today, but for as long as I’ve been in politics. I apologise for all my past mistakes,” Mahathir declared.
Party leaders are now careful to say publicly that Mahathir is a reformed character who can lead the ‘Reformasi’, a movement for political change that started in 1998 in reaction to his very rule.
Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, leads the Social Justice Movement (PKR), which was formed during the Reformasi protests and is now a component of the Harapan coalition. She is thought to have at least publicly ceded to Mahathir’s prime ministerial candidacy, though many in the party hold deep reservations.
Even in the event that Dr Mahathir wins the election, it remains unclear whether he will cede leadership to Anwar once he is released from prison later this year. Some suspect Mahathir’s strategy is to perpetuate his legacy through a bait-and-switch that eventually elevates his son Mukhriz, another former UMNO figure.
Besides sacking Anwar and jailing him on politically-motivated charges back in 1999, Mahathir has previously accused Anwar of things that would make him untouchable as a political ally. In 2012, Dr Mahathir accused his then arch-rival of being a Jewish sympathiser who disregarded the plight of the Palestinians.
“He (Anwar) never mentioned about the plight of the Palestinians… his sympathy is towards the struggles of the Jews,” he mused in response to an interview in the Wall Street Journal in which Anwar, in the context of discussing a two-state solution, pragmatically accepted “all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel”.
One can only guess whether Mahathir counts this episode as one of his “mistakes”, although he has never recanted any of his crude characterisations of Jews nor his strident criticisms of Israel.
Fronting a recent opposition rally outside the US Embassy draped in Palestinian garb, Mahathir described the recent decision by US President Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as “an act of bullying”.
“We all must be united and put an end to hostility against Muslims,” he added, alongside other leaders of the Pakatan coalition who addressed protesters chanting such slogans as “hancur Zionist (crush the Zionists)” and “hidup Palestine (long live Palestine)”.
Such sentiments are not unique to the opposition, of course, but undoubtedly resonate strongly among conservative-leaning rural Malay Muslims, a crucial constituency that Mahathir’s party must woo in large numbers for the opposition to have any chance of winning government.
Arrayed against him are Najib’s UMNO, which has long played to Malay anxieties through affirmative action programs and a deeply embedded patronage culture, and PAS, a conservative former opposition party that is officially independent but likely to side with UMNO to gain a seat in government.