Behind the Anwar-Zahid relationship

Murray Hunter, Free Malaysia Today

There is more than meets the eye to the relationship between Anwar Ibrahim and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

There has long been suspicion that Anwar, the Pakatan Harapan leader, and Zahid, the Umno president, had held secret talks before last month’s general election.

Fate, circumstances, electoral results, and intervention by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, led to Anwar forming a unity government, supported by Barisan Nasional led by Zahid.

The unanswered question is whether this is a marriage of pure convenience to grab power or if there is something deeper behind the move.

During the election campaign, there was much talk about how toxic Zahid was for BN. He barely held on to his seat Bagan Datuk with just a 348-vote majority. His local campaign was sabotaged by the grassroots membership while Khairy Jamaluddin openly disputed Zahid’s claim on the Umno presidency both during and immediately after the general election.

Zahid was openly attacked for his alleged corruption by PH leaders, where the scenario of Zahid becoming prime minister if BN won the election was used to deter voters.

Just a month before the election campaign commenced, Zahid was acquitted of all 40 charges of receiving bribes from a company to extend its contract for a foreign visa system. Zahid still faces charges of money laundering and criminal breach of trust involving millions of ringgit in payments to his charity Yayasan Akalbudi. The case is expected to resume next January.

Zahid’s political career appeared to have ended when BN won only 30 federal seats at the elections.

When it was confirmed that PH, BN, and Gabungan Parti Sarawak would form a coalition government together, news portals were full of comments about how the selection of Zahid as deputy prime minister would go against all of PH’s ethics.

This continued after Zahid was announced as deputy prime minister, and following last-minute wrangling over Tengku Zafrul Aziz’s appointment as a minister, delaying the Cabinet announcement by three and a half hours.

Most pundits dismiss the Anwar-Zahid relationship as just one of convenience. Some even believe that Anwar will one day be betrayed by Zahid, if the opportunity arises. However, Anwar and Zahid’s history together tell another story.

Back in Reformasi days

Anwar and Zahid have been political allies for many years. The two share a long relationship spanning many decades, beginning in the 1970s when Anwar and Zahid were student activists at Universiti Malaya.

This relationship continued during their time in Umno together. When Anwar was deputy prime minister, serving under Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Zahid was the Umno Youth chief. Many commentators at the time attribute Zahid’s early rise within Umno to Anwar.

Within Umno, Zahid was also seen as a critic of Mahathir. He was believed to have supported Anwar in his bid to topple Mahathir in 1998. When Zahid brought up allegations of nepotism and cronyism in government procurement, Mahathir retaliated by painting Zahid as one of Anwar’s cronies.

Zahid stood by Anwar when the latter was sacked as deputy prime minister and stripped of all his posts within Umno on Sept 2, 1998. Anwar was accused of sodomy and corruption, horrific enough allegations for any Malay to stand away from. Zahid was one of the few within Umno who stood fast.

After Anwar’s jailing, Zahid continued the fight and was arrested at a rally supporting Anwar, and interned under the Internal Security Act (ISA), along with Azmin Ali, Hishamuddin Rais, and Tian Chua.

Zahid was released earlier than the others, publicly pledging support for Mahathir, which was the cost of freedom at the time. He resigned as Umno Youth leader, but remained in the party.

During Anwar’s time in jail, Zahid rebuilt his career within Umno, being appointed a deputy minister under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and eventually becoming deputy prime minister after Najib Razak sacked Muhyiddin Yassin in 2015.

Zahid also had a long relationship, since his Umno Youth days, with PKR secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, who lost his Kulim-Bandar Baru seat in Kedah to Roslan Hashim of Bersatu in the recent general election. However, Anwar appointed Saifuddin as the minister for home affairs, through an appointment to the Senate.

Zahid’s surprise speech?

It should not be surprising that Zahid gave one of the most illuminating speeches of his career at an election rally for the Padang Serai election. Zahid said race and religion were now obsolete, and that policies of inclusiveness and unity were more relevant than ever before.

He also said Umno must learn from past mistakes and expressed hope that it would work within the unity government even beyond this current parliamentary term, to forge “a glorious government to lead the country forward”.

Working as Anwar’s alter-ego, Zahid is able to get away with saying things for which Anwar would be attacked. In the coming months, we will see if Zahid and Anwar continue this political role play, where Anwar thinks and Zahid speaks his thoughts.

No doubt, Zahid will be the beneficiary of this political expediency. There is no doubt a new attorney-general cum public prosecutor will either drop the charges, or in “sandiwara” (farce) fashion argue Zahid’s prosecution poorly enough to force an acquittal.

What is important to note is that, in Zahid’s visa contract case, High Court Justice Yazid Mustafa ruled that the prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case against Zahid.

Anwar and Zahid’s long-time relationship bore fruit with the opportunity to take power after the Nov 19 election. While Zahid was under intense pressure to resign after Umno’s dismal electoral performance, he abandoned talks with Muhyiddin and jumped across with enthusiasm to Anwar.

Many of Barisan Nasional’s 30 MPs strongly opposed the move, and probably still do. However, Zahid and Anwar were able to move under the cover of the monarchy. This enabled Zahid to lock GPS into the coalition.

Whether opportune or by design, time will tell us.