How Will the Mahathir-Anwar Transition Play Out in Malaysia?

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How Will the Mahathir-Anwar Transition Play Out in Malaysia?

The future of an unlikely alliance is far from certain.

Of the many colorful narratives within Malaysia’s general election this past May, the alliance between Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his ex-deputy Anwar Ibrahim, which he had imprisoned decades earlier before he moved to become the country’s opposition leader, was a rather poignant one. The two ultimately joined forces to defeat former premier Najib Razak at the polls under Mahathir’s leadership, and Mahathir’s return to the premiership was followed by Anwar’s release from prison.

Some things are truly bigger than spite, Anwar would say through his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail while he was in jail. Few believed the apparent change of heart at first, possibly including Wan Azizah herself. She was moved to tears when publicly addressing the reconciliation of her husband and the former prime minister, which was the subject of much speculation in Kuala Lumpur.

But the extent of this patch up between Anwar and Mahathir remains to be seen. A key litmus test will be how the two eventually do work out an earlier agreed transition plan that would see Mahathir leave office around two years after he assumed the premiership again in May in order for Anwar to take the helm in Malaysia.

The succession plan still remains unclear. The first hurdle for Anwar was cleared quickly. His release from prison after receiving a royal pardon was rightly seen by Malaysians and the rest of the world alike as a truly historic moment. That it took place within the first week of the new government was a nod to the promise that Mahathir is a “seat warmer,” as active as he is, for eventual Anwar leadership. Now, with a by-election slated for mid-October in the seat of Port Dickson it seems we’re almost there.

When remains the question. Common wisdom since the election suggests Mahathir will take care of the tough work, giving Anwar a free run for GE15. This feels likely, given Mahathir’s immediate priorities of seeing former Prime Minister (and another former protege) Najib Razak facing a litany of charges for his involvement in corruption as well as a review of all Najib-era infrastructure projects.

Fractures are, however, emerging. After Mahathir announced he had no intention of joining the campaign hustings in Port Dickson, rumors quickly swirled of a power struggle between the two. Both have knocked back these suggestions. Speaking in New York this week, Mahathir tried to pour cold water on the talk saying that the original agreement had been him as prime minister for two years before Anwar takes over.

Anwar was more forceful in his statements, begrudging the rumors as “political instigation” and called on supporters to not pit the two against each other. But with such a heavy, complicated past it’s hardly a surprise that many don’t entirely trust their narrative.

A clearer succession plan must be announced once Anwar, presumably, wins the seat of Port Dickson on October 13. To have an appointed successor sitting in Parliament is common elsewhere in the world, but in a government where history sits so latently in the foreground transparency is a must.

While he’s near certain to pick up Port Dickson, Anwar will not have a smooth campaign. Stevie Chan, a longtime vocal supporter of Anwar and his People’s Justice Party (PKR), will run against Anwar as an independent. He is angered that former Port Dickson MP Danyal Balagopal Abdullah exited the seat to make way for Anwar. The plan had been for months for Anwar to run in Wan Azizah’s seat of Pandan. This also courted controversy, with progressive supporters upset a woman — and his wife no less — had been tipped as the one to make room for the future prime minister.

“This is opening the door to a BN (Barisan Nasional) 2.0. We voted out corruption, arrogance, and a lack of accountability, and the Port Dickson by-election is exactly that,” Stevie told Says. He hinted at the support of powerful, but anonymous, backers and suggested resignations should trigger an investigation.

At this stage Anwar and Stevie will face off with two other candidates, including one from the conservative Islamic Party PAS. Initially, PAS had said the party and UMNO would back a joint candidate and campaign together, with the two parties expected to join forces in a right-wing, religious-centered coalition of sorts. The former ruling party had walked that back quickly, amid uncertainties over its future as well as realignments between political forces that remain to be worked out.

To be sure, the Anwar-Mahathir transition and the Port Dickson by-election is just one of many electoral signposts that lie ahead for Malaysia following the shock election result in May. And for all the focus on inter-governmental dynamics, the future of other parties and actors in Malaysia, as well as other variables such as the state of the economy, will play into the evolution of politics as well. Nonetheless, the ties between two of Malaysia’s dominant political personalities will continue to be an important start of the Southeast Asian state’s future.