IN a significant move on Monday, Malaysian opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan announced its prime ministerial candidate for the upcoming general election will be seasoned politician Mahathir Mohamad, making this is very interesting times for the country indeed.
Why is it interesting? Mahathir also happens to be a former prime minister and past leader of the current ruling coalition, Barisan National. During his 22-year stint in power, he was considered a Machiavellian authoritarian and orchestrated one of the biggest political controversies in Malaysia’s recent history.
In 1998, Mahathir sacked his deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and had him convicted and jailed on charges of sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia. This sacking eventually led to the formation of Malaysia’s strongest opposition alliance ever, with Anwar as its leader following his six-year prison term.
Mahathir eventually retired in 2003, but he couldn’t stay away from politics. He has been openly critical of all has successors, including former PM Abdullah Badawi and current prime minister Najib Razak. In fact, he played a major role in the resignation of Abdullah and has now turned his sights on his former ally.
It appears Mahathir has made it his life’s objective to bring down Najib and has accused the prime minister of extreme corruption; an accusation that has gained traction following the explosive 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.
While it is no secret that Anwar and Mahathir were bitter enemies, the pair are now giving the impression of unity. Mahathir apologised for his previous wrongdoings, and Anwar’s family and opposition party members have embraced working with the former PM.
Anwar himself, who is currently in prison for another charge of sodomy, has also accepted the coalition’s appointment of his former nemesis as prime ministerial candidate.
But there is still potential for disruption in the coming months.
If Pakatan Harapan were to win the election, they have said they will seek a royal pardon for Anwar, making him eligible to be prime minister and calling into question Mahathir’s position.
In a country in which personality politics dominate, these two icons can have a significant influence on public support, so it is understandable that the opposition would choose Mahathir for this pivotal role.
With Anwar behind bars and ineligible to contest, Mahathir’s large following and his die-hard supporters might be just what they need to disrupt the votes. But he is old, and at 92, he would be the world’s oldest prime minister.
Would the younger voters in Malaysia be persuaded to vote for an opposition led by someone from the throwback era of politics? Would they want to vote for an opposition party that has passed over its many promising young leaders in favour of a nonagenarian?
Many Malaysians will feel that Malaysia has gone back in time, and that the past twenty years have just been erased as if nothing ever happened. They would see that the country has returned to pre-1998 when Mahathir was the prime minister and Anwar was his deputy.
It looks likely that both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan will play to a simplistic populist form of politics to appeal to the public in the upcoming election. The fact that a 92-year-old former authoritarian prime minister who ruled for 22 years is now a candidate again just proves this.
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