Old battles in New Malaysia: The odyssey of Anwar and Mahathir

(FMT) – Reading between the lines (admittedly not an exact science) of what Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said thus far about Anwar Ibrahim, it would appear that Mahathir hasn’t changed his views about his one-time protégé.

His refusal to walk back on his decades-old comment that Anwar is morally unfit to be prime minister suggests that he still harbours doubts about him.

Even the announcement that he will now campaign for Anwar in Port Dickson fell short of the kind of wholehearted endorsement for the man that one would expect under such circumstances. In fact, Mahathir has had many opportunities to fully embrace his presumptive successor; that he has always declined to do so is indication enough that he for one is not particularly thrilled at the prospect.

The deal for Anwar to take over in two years’ time was something Mahathir was forced to accept in order to build the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. In any case, as Mahathir himself conceded, he did not expect to win and thus didn’t expect he’d have to worry about Anwar succeeding him.

On BBC recently, Mahathir reiterated that he would keep his promise to step down in two or three years, adding that Anwar can take over if that is what the nation wants. That’s a big if, and leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. In any case, two to three years is a long time in politics and anything can happen.

Power base

In the meantime, with only 13 of the 222 seats, Mahathir knows that his party just doesn’t have the numbers in Parliament. He has sought to augment their influence and power by co-opting his entire cohort of parliamentarians into Cabinet as ministers or deputy ministers but that is not enough.

If he really intends to outmanoeuvre Anwar, he will certainly need to increase the number of MPs in his stable.

The slow implosion of Umno under the lacklustre leadership of the clueless Ahmad Zahid Hamidi offers Mahathir rich pickings. More and more Umno MPs are likely to follow Mustapa Mohamed and Anifah Aman in jumping ship.

Speculation is also rife of mass defections in some Umno divisions. Once the defections gather momentum, Umno will collapse quickly, something that Mahathir himself alluded to while in New York recently.

Zahid, for his part, is discovering that when you have money and position to throw around, people will follow you like the Pied Piper of Hamelin; the real test of leadership is to get people to follow you when all you have to offer is a vision, as Mahathir did in the run-up to the election. That’s what makes Mahathir the formidable leader that he is.

Mahathir, of course, has burned his bridges with Umno but he would almost certainly be open to Umno members joining PPBM in one form or another.

The go-to party for keris-wielders

It is amusing, of course, that having been part of one of the worst kleptocratic regimes in history, Umno stalwarts are now suddenly worried about “bangsa, agama and negara” or “Sabah rights” as the case may be.

Obviously, they are simply looking for a new party to park their ambitions. Well, Samuel Johnson did note that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”.

Many might also be deeply worried that they might soon come under the scrutiny of MACC and are rushing to make peace with the new government in the hope of saving themselves and keeping their ill-gotten fortunes.

When they start talking about Malay rights, however, it is clear that the only party they can join (if they leave Umno) is the all-Malay PPBM, as PKR is multiracial and PAS too focused on religion for these materialistic, power-hungry types. In hindsight, that’s the genius of Mahathir in keeping PPBM an all-Malay party.

It also helps that many of these Umno stalwarts cut their teeth under Mahathir and were never big fans of Anwar anyway.

Such is the enigma of Mahathir that even though he almost single-handedly brought Umno to its knees, Umno members tend to flock to him rather than to Anwar.

Proxy war in PKR

Likewise, serious infighting within PKR offers Mahathir further opportunities to outflank Anwar and grow his own party. It is no secret that the fight to the death between Mohamed Azmin Ali and Rafizi Ramli is a proxy battle between Mahathir and Anwar.

Anwar, of course, tried to keep Azmin out of federal politics by insisting that he continue as menteri besar of Selangor; Mahathir put paid to those plans when he appointed Azmin to the Cabinet.

Given the deep-seated divisions between the two factions within PKR, and the viciousness of their attacks against each other, it will be next to impossible to kiss and make up once the party elections are over. It means that Anwar can no longer count on the undivided loyalty of his own senior leadership.

Forging a new Malay bloc

Mahathir must also know that his PPBM, in its present form, is not likely to survive him. It has made little headway in widening its support base among Malay-Muslims though the longer Mahathir stays in office, the more that is likely to change. More than anything else, however, it does not have experienced leaders to stave off challenges to its power post-Mahathir.

If Mahathir intends to keep Anwar at bay, he has to find a way to empower Azmin (who else is there?) as head of a new all-Malay political grouping involving PPBM, Amanah and disgruntled MPs from both Umno and PKR. And that is probably where we are headed.

This is the first of a two-part series. Next: The man who would be king.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.