Mahathir Mohamed’s return likely to make little difference to GE14

Mahathir Mohamed will stand as Pakatan Harapan’s presidential nominee in GE14. Will his latest comeback make any difference in Malaysia?

By John Pennington

Mahathir Mohamed is back. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition nominated him as their Prime Ministerial candidate.

Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak must call the general election (GE14) before August. Analysts expect voters to go to the polls sometime in the Spring.

Mahathir says if he wins, he will stand aside for Anwar Ibrahim to take power. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader Anwar is in prison. He is unable to stand for election. Anwar needs a royal pardon – which PH will seek if they win the election – to return to politics.

Mahathir may be the best person PH could put up against Najib. However, does his appointment give PH a shot at victory?

Mahathir is a political heavyweight and could attract voters

Mahathir, Malaysia’s PM between 1981 and 2003, has considerable experience and stature. He appeals to a broad spectrum of the Malaysian population. He may sway supporters in rural areas to vote for him instead of Najib.

His record may also attract voters. During his time as PM, his policies helped boost the Malaysian economy. Under his rule, the country became an “Asian economic tiger”. There are those who are prepared to give him a second chance.

There is also significant opposition to Mahathir

He also has plenty of critics and opponents. Many people are sceptical about his alliance with Anwar. The two men have little in common other than a mutual distrust of Najib. Voters who want Najib out will not care.

Others will be wary. Mahathir has promised similar things in the past and not delivered. Voters cannot be sure he will step aside. His record of deception does not inspire confidence at the ballot box. He stands accused of hypocrisy and changing his story over the 1MDB scandal.

He ruled with an iron fist. Anwar was among those to have suffered at his hands when Mahathir sacked him in 1998. Those with memories of his time in office may not be so keen to vote for him again.

Young voters may stay away from GE14

According to the Merdeka Centre, 70% of voters under 30 do not care about politics. 67% of them believe politicians are the most significant problem the country faces. Around two-thirds of unregistered voters are in their 20s.

Losing the youth vote would spell disaster for PH. A massive swing among young voters helped them win the popular vote in 2013. Mahathir’s appointment will do little to inspire young people to get behind PH. Pledges to raise the minimum wage, offer travel cards and tax incentives may not placate them.

Two decades ago, Mahathir had youth support. Back then, he represented the change young people wanted. Now, they want somebody else to stand against Najib. They want somebody with a vision for Malaysia’s future. They want innovation and connection with their politicians.

“Millennials wish to see a fresh figure, rich with far-sightedness, and who’ll effectively rectify the damage done by the leadership of UMNO and BN,” Hizwan Ahmed, a Selangor PKR official, said.

Right now, there are few, if any, credible alternatives for PH

Who could the young voters get behind? Nurul Izzah Anwar and Mukhriz Mahathir are still relatively inexperienced. As daughter and son respectively of the new PH leadership, they are hardly fresh faces. Muhyiddin Yassin lacks political impact even if he is no stranger to taking on Najib.

All three would connect with young people better than Mahathir. All could offer the sort of long-term vision Mahathir cannot. However, their leadership would likely cost PH any chance of winning the election.

PH officials claimed that among rural voters, Mahathir was the most popular choice. Non-Malays and middle-class voters preferred Anwar. For PH, these are the key demographics.

Sources: BBC, CNN, Straits Times

A vote for Mahathir is a vote for uncertainty

At 92, Mahathir would be the world’s oldest leader should he come to power. There is little certainty in a vote for him and the coalition. Nor is it a vote for reform or innovation, given that both he and Anwar are former UMNO stalwarts. Both are in the latter stages of their political careers.

Mahathir is effectively an interim candidate. He will stand for election only to stand aside soon after he wins. Malaysians voting for Mahathir will be voting for Anwar and his deputy, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Najib remains the favourite to win

It says much about Malaysian politics that Najib is favourite to win re-election. An independent survey in December predicted BN would retain its parliamentary majority.

There is still time for Mahathir and PH to make inroads. “While the survey presently indicates the situation as being uphill for Pakatan, we still have perhaps two to three months to the election, which is at least half a lifetime in politics,” said Merdeka Centre programme director Ibrahim Suffian.

At this stage, it is impossible to imagine Najib failing to win GE14. It will soon be time for Mahathir to exit the political scene. It will then be high time for PH to focus on leadership renewal and how to engage young voters again.