Dr M back in the thick of things

(The Straits Times) – Former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is conspicuously back on the political scene. He flew in from London to attend the swearing-in of Datuk Seri Najib Razak as Prime Minister yesterday.

And on Monday, he will hit the campaign trail for the by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, most likely as a newly returned Umno member.

“He wants to bring a message of Umno unity to the voters since Najib has taken over the party,” said an aide to Datuk Mukhriz, the youngest son of the former premier.

It is a swift return to the stage for Dr Mahathir, 83, who left Umno last year in a final bid to push out his bitter rival, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

He is expected to rejoin Umno before heading north on Monday.

“I think we can see that he intends to make a comeback of sorts,” said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

It is not clear what role he will play, but the impact of his return is likely to be minimal.

In the last general election, he did cause severe damage to the Barisan Nasional after he told voters to vote for clean candidates, even if they were not from the BN. He helped hasten a tide that was already in the opposition's favour.

Dr Mahathir also adroitly used his influence in Umno to shape developments that forced Abdullah's retirement.

But his direct impact on the party is minimal. He could not swing the vote in favour of his son Mukhriz in the election for the Umno Youth chief.

“His views will be used by people to support their own position. Even the opposition uses it. But his ability to change government or party policies is limited,” said Khoo.

Nevertheless, his return to Umno will be hugely welcomed by the party because it is a sign of Umno unity and strength. His campaigning in Perak and Kedah is intended to send this signal, in particular to the Malays.

It is not expected to significantly alter the voting patterns.

“There won't be much impact with the Indian and Chinese voters. Among the Malay fence-sitters, there could be some, but not significantly,” said PAS’s election strategist, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.

Perak Umno MP Raja Ahmad Zainuddin told The Straits Times that Dr Mahathir's campaign may strike a chord among Umno members.

“He has been a leader for a long time, and will have influence among the elderly members. But maybe not much among the youngsters,” he said.

Dr Mahathir will have two speaking engagements in Bukit Gantang in Perak, and one in Bukit Selambau in Kedah.

Both seats are fairly mixed, with 50 to 60 per cent of the electorate being Malay. It is believed that the non-Malay votes are pro-opposition, with the Malay votes split.

This is the first time Dr Mahathir is campaigning for the BN since his fallout with Abdullah.

In last year's general election, he did some groundwork for his son, Mukhriz, who won the Jerlun seat in Kedah. Then, he worked with the Umno grassroots to persuade them to close ranks.

The party hopes he will play the same role now, especially in Bukit Gantang, as there is unhappiness after the local Umno warlords were not selected as the candidate.

A split in Umno played a big role in the loss of this seat last year.

Dr Mahathir's presence could rally the Umno troops, who feel under siege.

The extent of Dr Mahathir's influence will largely depend on Najib's ability to manage their relationship. The PM's supporters are confident he will be able to balance things without creating the perception that Dr Mahathir is calling the shots.

There are a number of outstanding issues that Dr Mahathir had championed, including building a bridge to replace the Causeway to Singapore.

“I think Najib will be quite careful about this perception. He knows that Malaysians will not like it,” said Khoo.