On Sunday, Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s longest-serving leader, was chosen by the opposition alliance to serve as its prime ministerial candidate for a general election due by mid-2018. Mahathir’s selection solidifies the ongoing development of an unlikely alliance with his former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – who had been jailed during his reign – in a new bid to oust unpopular, scandal-ridden current incumbent Najib Razak.
It is an astonishing plan. And, if it works, the pair could end a long-running feud and perhaps Najib’s tenure at the same time. Najib’s rule has been badly scarred by a series of scandals and accusations money from sovereign development fund had found its way into his personal bank account. He denies all charges.
Mahathir, 92, intends to run against Najib at the poll. If successful, he will become prime minister and then likely seek a royal pardon for Anwar, which would then enable the opposition leader to replace him as prime minister in due course.
Anwar, 70, is currently serving a five-year jail sentence for sodomy and is expected to be released in June, with time off for good behavior. Under the law, he would still be barred from holding public office due to his criminal conviction.
But a royal pardon would circumvent that and leave Najib politically stranded amid a string of international investigations into his personal and political life.
Anwar, who has been politically persecuted, pursued through the courts and beaten in custody to within a whisker of his life, went tantalizingly close to winning elections in 2013 when he won the popular vote, but Najib clung on to power through heavy gerrymandering.
There is little doubt that Najib, 64, had anticipated this political maneuver, with the scandal-ridden premier being so caught up in his political survival of late.
In his New Year’s message this year, he hinted that a leadership challenge from within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) could be in the offing.
He said it was not acceptable “… for a former leader to attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government in the hope that his ambitions for his son may be realised”.
It was a veiled reference to Mahathir and his son, Mukhriz, despite the fact that he has said he has no ambition to take on the UMNO leadership.
However, steps have been taken to patch up differences between Mahathir and Anwar, and there were earlier signals that a fresh pact had emerged from Malaysia’s often muddied political landscape.
In July, there were expectations that Mahathir would apologize for his earlier vilification of Anwar. That did not happen, but Mahathir did say he had erred and that Anwar should have been allowed to become Malaysia’s fifth prime minister back in 2003.
Mahathir also said he would support him as the next prime minister if he received a royal pardon.
Anwar once served as deputy to Mahathir in UMNO until he was sacked at the height of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.
UMNO has won every government since Malaysian independence in 1957 and has rarely been challenged until five years ago poll when Anwar’s People’s Justice Party came closest.
The next poll will be bitterly fought, with UMNO lining up against the four-party opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Its secretary general Saifuddin Abdullah said Mahathir and Anwar were two “statesmen” cooperating to complete their mission.
On Sunday, Mahathir, a no-nonsense authoritarian who ruled Malaysia for 22 years, was named as Pakatan’s interim prime minister candidate, while Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail was named as candidate for the deputy prime minister’s post.
This is potentially a lethal combination for Najib whose political survival, along with his personal and business life, is at stake. As prime minister, he has been afforded some protection from corruption charges, particularly in regards to the 1MDB scandal in which he has been mired.
The fate of UMNO and its record of uninterrupted rule is also at risk and that could trigger a leadership crisis, and perhaps a challenge, within the ruling party ranks before the election. As for Najib, he remains dangerously exposed, and even if he does win this year’s election, his days at the helm could soon be over much quicker than he thinks.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt