Risking it all: why Mahathir is playing a dangerous game

Photo: udeyismail/CC BY 2.0

Mahathir Mohamad has reentered the forefront of Malaysian politics, hungry to ensure his dynasty continues through his son. But in doing so he risks his political legacy.

By Oliver Ward

Determination, a keen survival instinct and an unquenchable thirst for power whatever the cost. When Malaysia watched Mahathir Mohamad descend the steps of the ministerial building in 2003 after 22 years at the helm of the country, there was a strong sense of uncertainty about a future without him.

Despite his pledge on leaving office of, “when I leave, I leave completely,” just three years later he played an active role in the ousting of the former prime minister, Abdullah Badawi. Now he is back in the public eye calling for blood and the removal of current prime minister Najib Razak for his reported involvement in a multibillion-dollar financial scandal involving state funds.

Mahathir accuses the president of “abusing the law” and “stealing people’s money” and is urging the country to join him in protest. At 91, nobody can criticise his determination, but why is he not giving up his political mantle?

The unpopular choice?

Mahathir himself says his return was prompted by being maltreated by his successor. However, could this be the grumblings of a slighted old man? According to him he is owed something by the political establishment for his service to the country and has become frustrated when he found his voice falling on deaf ears. To reignite his career he started a blog to give himself a platform and has been rallying supporters against the government ever since.

But Mahathir no longer commands the same influence, nor does he enjoy the same popularity he had two decades ago when he was in power. In the wake of his tussle with Prime Minister Najib, he turned his back on the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party to form Bersatu, a new opposition party in the Pakatan Harapan (PKR) coalition. The intention is to bring new Malay supporters to Pakatan and the Bersih 5 movement.

But since Mahathir joined the opposition, the numbers involved in Bersih rallies have fallen. On the night of 19 November, the number of people marching in anti-government rallies was between 3-10% of what they were at the same time last year.

Malays do not want Mahathir involved in politics and can see through allegations against Najib as the hypocritical bile that they are. Under Mahathir’s government, he fattened his cronies, like Vincent Tan, on taxpayer money and there was the misuse of state-owned company funds and irregularities in the judicial system. As such, his loud shouts of Najib being unfit for office feel like hypocrisy. 

Hungry for power?

So what does Mahathir gain from reentering the Malaysian political melee? In the early days of his campaign to oust Najib he refused to name his choice for successor. But should the campaign have been an immediate success and Najib had fallen, then Muhyiddin Yassin would be the logical choice as Prime Minister, not Mahathir.

However, after it became apparent that Najib was not going to topple so easily, Mahathir still refused to name Muhyiddin as the successor. At the same time, the other major players for succession were also rejected by the former leader as being too close to imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim. This meant that Anwar himself and anyone associated with him would not be fit to run as prime minister in Mahathir’s eyes. This leaves only his son, Mukhriz, as the ageing strongman’s choice.

This changes the picture somewhat and suggests Mahathir will stay in politics at any cost to ensure his family dynasty survives. Initially, he tried to get Najib removed from within the UMNO party, adopting the mantra in 2015 of “oust Najib to save UMNO”. But when it became apparent that the party would not accept Mahathir’s son as Najib’s replacement, he had to explore other options.

So, it was against this backdrop that he changed his tactics. He dropped his save the party slogan and replaced it with, “oust Najib to save Malaysia”, and created his own political party.

This only goes to prove the shallow nature of Mahathir’s intentions. He is willing to join any party, or back any cause, to see his own son reach power. And like Machiavelli himself, he now looks to ride the Pakatan for any popularity he can before the ship starts to sink. 

An American conspiracy?

Some Najib supporters believe the old man’s motivation for active political life lies deeper than just the promotion of his son. Earlier this year a new accusation surfaced; that the American Department of Justice and Mahathir’s new political party were working together to bring down the government. 

This use of a foreign power to paint Mahathir’s return to the political limelight as the actions of a foreign puppet aim to discredit him amongst the rural population. But this claim does not seem to contain much truth. 

Not only has Najib’s UMNO party used this ploy in the past against the People’s Justice Party and the Democratic Action Party (and so has Mahathir – against Anwar Ibrahim),  but Najib is the one who boasts of a strong relationship with the US.

So is Mahathir a political genius with a keen survival instinct, or does he simply lack the intellect to know when he is politically finished? Either way, he needs to be careful. Unlike his predecessor, Najib has shown his resilience and the public are tired of Mahathir’s refusal to accept defeat.

Today his popularity is wavering, and his power-hungry motives are becoming increasingly transparent. By returning to front-line politics, he is playing with fire and risking his political legacy. He no longer has the option to bow out gracefully as a winner, like he did in 2003. He might find the next walk away from politics a much lonelier affair.