Succeeding Malaysia’s Nonagenarian Premier

By Murray Hunter

Before Malaysia’s federal election in May 2018, Mahathir Mohamad vowed that if he became prime minister, he would hand over the position to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. This promise has been at the forefront of the policies of the Pakatan Harapan coalition since the election, almost to the point of being a distraction to daily government business.

Mahathir has repeatedly said he will keep his promise, but at the same time made contradictory statements which have made Anwar feel very insecure. The prime minister hasn’t confirmed any handover date despite his advanced age of 94. Anwar’s continual search for support gives the appearance that he only has one ambition, that to yet be the prime minister of Malaysia.

Although Anwar is meant to take over in the not-too-distant future, he has no position in the cabinet, no position in government other than being a member of parliament and is impatient. There has been deep antipathy between the two going back to 1998 when Mahathir engineered his imprisonment on sexual deviancy charges that many rights organization viewed as fabricated. Anwar knows Mahathir is hesitating and unenthusiastic. Any agreement they have can’t be legally enforced. The transfer to Anwar totally relies upon Mahathir’s goodwill.

There is no group with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat or the Pakatan Harapan coalition lobbying for any other candidate than Anwar. However, many things have the potential to endanger the succession. If Mahathir were to become incapacitated, his deputy Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – Anwar’s wife – would become interim prime minister. Her time as deputy prime minister has shown her to waver over policy issues. Although in-person she radiates charisma, she appears lacklustre on television and is a poor parliamentary performer. While she does have a support base, it wouldn’t be strong enough for her to remain as prime minister, especially with Anwar in the wings.

Anwar lost credibility over a sex video of his seeming intra-party rival, Mohamed Azmin Ali, allegedly in a homosexual embrace. The Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said publicly that the leader of a political party wanted to bring down Azmin with the video clip, hinting that Anwar was behind it. The issue split Anwar’s party, which he has been unable to mend. There are rumours of an impending exit from PKR of 15 MPs to form their own party. Anwar’s own daughter quit all party positions in anger over political machinations and it’s rumoured that he no longer lives with his wife. Anwar has become isolated both politically and personally.

Anwar’s next litmus test might be a by-election in the southern state of Johor where the sitting member of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu, Md Farid Md Rafik, died suddenly a heart attack. The seat will be very difficult to win, as the combined vote of the United Malays National Organization and Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS was 2,000 more than Pakatan polled in the seat last general election. Now the two parties have made a formal alliance against a ruling coalition that is flailing on several levels. The by-election may well decide who should be the best prime minister to lead the campaign in the next general election.

Anwar appears to be a chameleon. He has been caught saying different things to different audiences on the same subject. He is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue or visionary on matters of policy. Criticism has been laid on Pakatan’s last election manifesto as being irresponsible. Eliminating the deeply unpopular 6 per cent goods and services tax, for instance, without replacing it with some other revenue source, for example, has put government finances under deep stress. Anwar was a staunch promoter of crony-capitalism in the 1990s when he was deputy prime minister and came under great criticism for his handling of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1996.

Anwar has not proven himself to be a wise political strategist. His focus on urban areas during GE13 in 2013 rather than the rural heartlands cost the then-Pakatan Rakyat coalition many potential votes. A promise to take over the government that year failed. To a great number of supporters, he is the great hope of reform. To others, he is a disaster. The bottom line is no one really knows where Anwar actually stands on most issues.

However, if Mahathir decides to stay on for the full term, which ends in 2023, Anwar may never get his chance. In the event Mahathir runs full-term and calls a general election there is a strong probability the revitalized combined UMNO-PAS, with support from Sarawak, could win the election.

If the PAS and UMNO votes in seats they competed against each other last general election were added together, Pakatan Rakyat would lose 30, giving the UMNO-PAS grouping 97 seats in the new Parliament. With the support of 15 seats from Sarawak and Sabah, Pakatan would be defeated and Malaysia would most likely have an UMNO prime minister once again.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current UMNO president, would become the new prime minister, possibly triggering a weird scenario. The 1MDB trial to determine culpability in the theft of US$4.8 billion is droning on to a weary public. People are finding difficult to understand the 1MDB court proceedings and are starting to think if Najib Razak is not already in jail, the prosecutors are having difficulty pinning anything on him.

People are beginning to see Najib as another victim of Mahathir’s machinations. He is attracting supportive and curious crowds wherever he goes, slowly developing a celebrity status. This is now being managed and with the new UMNO-PAS alliance, there is a chance Najib could garner a sympathy vote in the next election.

If Najib does go to prison before the next election, he may well become a martyr who can be used by UMNO-PAS for the electoral benefit, especially if dissatisfaction with Pakatan could be channelled towards Najib as a symbol. A situation could arise in which Ahmad Zahid becomes prime minister with Abdul Hadi as deputy, seeking a pardon from the Agong, or king. to release Najib from prison, where through a by-election he comes back into parliament and Ahmad Zahid stands aside for him to once again become prime minister.

If both Zahid and Najib were convicted in court and fined over RM 2,000 or put in prison for more than one year, then it’s probable that Mohamad Hasan would once again take up the UMNO reins. Hasan has governing experience as Chief Minister of Negri Sembilan for just over 14 years. Hasan also has banking and corporate experience. He could prove to be a mild reformer who could reach out to both UMNO hardliners and moderates.

If for some reason PAS got more seats than UMNO in the next general election and the UMNO-PAS coalition won, then Abdul Hadi Awang would become prime minister. Abdul Hadi turned PAS away from an inclusive form of Islam championed by the late former Chief Minister of Kelantan Nik Aziz towards exclusionist Islam. He was also a one-term Chief Minister of Terengganu from 2004-2008 but came under immense criticism for enjoying the trappings of office too much.

PAS lost the next state election to UMNO. Abdul Hadi likes to indulge in hate and racist politics, making many controversial comments. However, he is more likely to become deputy prime minister to either Ahmad Zahid or Najib in a UMNO-PAS coalition government.

Other names have been bandied about in the media, social media and chat rooms as potential candidates for prime minister.

Some time ago there was media speculation that Mahathir was grooming Mohamed Azmin Ali, but it was much more likely he was being groomed to be a loyal and competent minister which Mahathir needs in the cabinet. A competent minister with experience going back to his stint as Chief Minister of Selangor, he has been close and loyal to Mahathir. However, most believe it was indeed Azmin in the sex video, which has tainted him.

Others have speculated that Mahathir’s hope is that he can pave the way for current Kedah Chief Minister and his son Mukhriz Mahathir. Mukhriz is more like his mother than father. He is not a Mahathir replacement and there are a few questionable corporate dealings around him. Mukhriz is probably best to carve out his political future in Kedah.

The Mukhriz theory postulates the Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin could become a transitional prime minister before Mukhriz takes over. However, Muhyiddin is facing a personal battle with pancreatic cancer.

Another possibility could be staunch Mahathir loyalist and Kelantanese MP Mustapa Mohamed, who defected from UMNO to Bersatu earlier this year. It’s been rumoured that Mustapa could become a minister in a cabinet reshuffle. Mustapa is a workaholic technocrat, who is more functionary than visionary. He has held a number of portfolios including finance, higher education, Agriculture, entrepreneurship development, and prime minister’s office.

He would probably be a great chief minister, which he was groomed for. Expect Mustapa to become a minister once again, he is too far away from the top position as he lacks a support base within Pakatan.

Of late there has been some support within the media for the former minister in the first Mahathir era, Rafidah Aziz. Known within government circles as a non-nonsense doer with years of experience in the high-profile Ministry of Trade, she retired from her Kuala Kangsar constituency at the 2013 election. Most have forgotten a scandal around Rafidah and her family over import permits for cars which is believed to have enriched her. But she is a member of Bersatu, capable, fiercely loyal to Mahathir, and would instil confidence with some of the older generation. However, her candidacy is more wishful thinking.

Ask the younger generation and names like Khairy Jamaluddin come up. Khairy is in the wrong faction to get anywhere in UMNO. However, he has little place to go as he is not welcome in PKR, and certainly not in Bersatu. From the Pakatan side, Nurul Izzah Anwar is often mentioned. Still immature and should have spent some time as a state councillor either in the Selangor or Penang state government.

Mahathir is the prime minister Malaysia had to have. Love him or hate him there is a vacuum of potential prime ministerial talent in Malaysian politics today. There aren’t many in the talent pool in the current parliament. Time has passed for some while others’ could be in the future. There are two large groups in the community.

For the Pakatan alliance, the name of prime minister is not as important as defeating the new UMNO-PAS alliance. UMNO-PAS would much rather deal with Anwar on the hustings next general election than face Mahathir. But Mahathir, at age 94, isn’t going to last forever. Pakatan really has to think this one out.

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