Wise Old Man or Running Amok?

Partyforumseasia:  Dr Mahathir Mohamad does not look his age of 92, and the unrelenting campaign he is leading against Prime Minister Najib Razak seems to invigorate and energise him even more. During his 22 years (1981 – 2003) Mahathir nowas Prime Minister he was not known for being too choosy with policies and actions against competitors and the opposition. His training background as a medical doctor was often used to explain the surgical precision of his shrewed and decisive political maneuvres.
Controversial as his tenure was on the one hand, Malaysia’s economic progress during the Mahathir years remains undisputed on the other. Some projects have seen less than lasting success, like the creation of a home-grown car industy, the Proton Saga, but under his supervision Malaysia has seen enormous growth and modernization.
Politically, the racial imbalance of the country had led to affirmative action in favor of the Malay population long before Mahathir, but he refined the system in a way that secured the dominance of his UMNO party until today.
After engineering the ouster of his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, in 2009, Mahathir has now turned against Prime Minister Najib Razak. He left UMNO and founded a new Malay party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) in January 2017.
For such a young party, the organizational progress is impressive. According to one of the leading internal political analysts of Malaysia, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and at the moment reseach fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, PPBM has established divisions in 137 out of 165 parliamentary constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, and about 200.000 membership applications of predominantly younger people. See Wan Saiful’s latest analysis in Singapore’s Straits Times on 1 January (LINK).
PPBM, translated as Malaysian United Indigenous Party, is eyeing the Malay core voters, who, so far, have been voting for the ruling UMNO or its Islamist competitor PAS. The question is, of course, whether the unhappiness with the prevailing level of money politics and corruption can divert traditional UMNO supporters, who are not close to the PAS fundamentalists either, into voting for PPBM in the upcoming election due by August. Mahathir’s role as opposition leader is curtailed by the co-operation with the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, which has been successfully defamed as anti-Malay and anti-Islam by UMNO propaganda.


Prime Minister Najib Razak

UMNO, however, does not take its victory for granted, and is setting everything in motion to weaken all the splintered opposition forces which it had already seen as toothless with former leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison and by getting closer to PAS which has left the opposition coalition. The newest re-delineation of constituency boundaries shows that the old gerrymandering tricks are being refined again. Malaysia’s level of malapportionment is rather unique and still growing.
For Mahathir the fight is more than uphill, but his energy at the age of 92 is remarkable, and his charisma and image are still working some magic and pulling the crowds. His determination to topple the Prime Minister might convince more voters than the polls predict by now that the UMNO system is detrimental for the country. But Najib and his cronies can be expected to do more than it needs to defend their dominance and the financial network.


False Hope for the Alliance of Hope?


With the wild rumors swirling about an early date for the next general election in Malaysia, everybody wonders about the chances of the opposition to win in its third attempt. 2008 and 2013 saw important advances against the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, but the gerrymandered election system, expensive gifts to certain voter groups, clever fear mongering, and insufficient co-ordination among the opposition parties kept UMNO and BN comfortably in power.

Prime minister Najib Razak, who is also president of UMNO, quite shrewdly managed to dismantle the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) by eliminating its leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, probably the only politician who could unite the opposition. The seventy-year-old leading figure of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), is still in jail with a controversial conviction for sodomy and banned from politics for five years. For the ruling BN coalition, the end of the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 was a dream come true.

PM Najib, in the meantime, had other dangerous problems. The 1MDB financial scandal with billions disappeared from this state fund and hundreds of millions discovered in the prime minister’s private accounts would have led to his resignation or unseating in most other political systems. Not so in Malaysia. With remarkable cold blood and chutzpah, Najib has not only survived the storm so far but cemented his leadership in party and coalition as well.

But the opposition is reorganizing itself as well. And 91-year-old veteran politician and former long-term prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing an interesting role in this new game. He has left UMNO and started a new party, the United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PPBM) and just joined the new opposition coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan).
This new coalition unites now four opposition parties, namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese-dominated party with a socialist approach, the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara), a splinter from Islamist PAS, and Mahathir’s PPBM as newest member since 20 March. The PH coalition is planning to optimize its forces by campaigning with a common logo and without competing against each other in any constituency.

With PAS keeping a hostile distance toward Pakatan Harapan because of the “anti-Malay” DAP and the “renegade” Amanah, the opposition has lost a former ally with a stable number of seats in the national parliament. The BN coalition of UMNO and twelve component parties holds 132 of the 222 seats. To oust BN and PM Najib, the opposition would need at least 112 seats. This looks like a tall order at the moment, up from 75 in the sitting parliament.

The next general election is formally only due by August 2018, but in the British tradition, the prime minister can call it earlier at his discretion and sense of opportunity. Najib is obviously playing the guessing game for all, has started the BN campaign machinery, and, most importantly, has survived the financial scandal so far with gaining more strength and power in his own party and coalition. His power to fire any internal critic and any civil servant or legal office bearer, and his grip on the government’s and the party’s cash flows, make him look more or less unbeatable. Large parts of the population, especially his Malay vote banks, seem to be relatively unfazed by the financial scandal, and the new proximity with PAS and its Islamist hudud (Muslim criminal punishments) project makes it even more difficult for the opposition.

But no election victory is ever guaranteed. With all the instruments in his hand, from the Election Commission to the money supply and distribution, the prime minister may still be feel too sure about winning. If the Pakatan Harapan coalition manages to unite and avoid all three cornered fights, and, of course, find the appropriate central message to the voters, nothing can be excluded.