Mahathir has repaired his relationship with Anwar. But is this enough to take down Najib?
By Tan Zhi Xin, Edited by Isabel Yeo
The grand man of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has made his political comeback. He has reconciled with his former deputy and protégé, Anwar Ibrahim by joining opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH). The Pakatan Harapan coalition comprises the People’s Justice Party (KEADILAN); Democratic Action Party (DAP); National Trust Party (AMANAH); and Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM).
This Anwar-Mohamad partnership was a surprise. The pair first fell out in 1998 when Mahathir sacked Anwar over political differences. Today, they share a common goal to remove the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“For me overthrowing Najib is far more important than any personal feeling I have about anything else,” Mahathir declared in an interview.
Some have described the reconciliation of the former nemeses as “historic” for Malaysia’s disunited opposition. However, for an opposition plagued by internal woes, this partnership might not be sufficient to unseat Najib in the 2018 Elections.
The Pakatan Harapan has a severe leadership crisis
Currently, the coalition’s top leaders are Mahathir, Anwar and Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Anwar is their “de facto leader”, while Wan Azizah is the coalition’s president. Mahathir, on the other hand, is the chairman of the coalition. It is unclear who calls the shots. Having three leaders instead of one also sends a message to the electorate that the leadership crisis is unresolved. In comparison, Prime Minister Najib is clearly the chief of United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). On the issue of leadership, the incumbents one-up the opposition.
“What’s the point of naming three leaders when all you need is one? It shows there is still a leadership crisis that hasn’t been solved,” said Ahmad Martadha, a professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
While having three at the top seems fine for now, disputes for power will likely arise later. Both Anwar and Mahathir are strong personalities. UMNO minister Nazri Aziz speculated that Mahathir and Anwar would end up “killing each other”.
The opposition has yet to name its nominee for Prime Minister
The opposition coalition also struggled to determine who should be Prime Minister should they win the coming election.
Anwar is currently under incarceration for a “trumped-up charge of sodomy”. According to Malaysia’s election guidelines, Anwar cannot serve as the next Prime Minister even if Pakatan Harapan wins the coming election. The only way to circumvent this guideline is if the Sultan grants him a royal pardon.
Mahathir’s age is a concern. Voters may worry he cannot last the term. It is also unclear if he is still popular. It would be risky to nominate Mahathir as their choice for Prime Minister.
There are other options such as Kedah’s previous Mentri Besar and Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz Mahathir, Anwar’s eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah, and DAP’s Lim Guan Eng. Nurul Izzah is a Member of Parliament for Lembah Panta, while Lim Guan Eng is serving as the Secretary-General of DAP. These newer faces might be more palatable for Malaysia’s four million unregistered youth voters as well.
“In any election, it all depends on who is standing against the incumbent. At the moment there seems to be no alternative leader with wide-ranging support,” observed Keith Loveard, a security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.
Differences in ideology hamper inter-party unity
In addition to leadership challenges, it remains unclear how the alliance will split their seats. Some parties also have conflicting ideas. Mahathir’s PPBM advocates for Malay supremacy, while Anwar’s KEADILAN promises to examine the affirmative action programs benefiting the Malays.
“Should we win, I don’t know what will happen,” said one senior figure who wished to remain anonymous. “We come from different groups, and we have different ideas on what a post-Barisan country would look like. I hope that time will bring us closer,” the senior figure added.
Najib will still have the upper hand in the coming election
Najib is in a good position to win in 2018. His continued support for the special position of Malays virtually guarantees the conservative Malay vote. Scandals like the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal have also had little impact on his career. After all, Najib is a political magician who had always managed to contain the situation and retain political support.
Most Malaysians would still cast their vote for Najib because they have not been personally affected by his alleged corruption. UMNO’s core voters, the rural poor, may be more concerned about bread and butter issues than corruption and economic strategies.
Oh Si Eun, Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011 said, “perhaps they are more amenable to material attractions, simply because they are poor.”
It will take more than an alliance to unseat Najib. The PH will need to define their vision for Malaysia and appoint a leader, failing which, Najib will win the 2018 Elections.