Malaysia’s political drama plays on as 92-year-old former PM Mahathir gets another shot at leading the country

Definitely more dramatic than Singapore politics.

By Sulaiman Daud | January 8, 2018

What a dramatic weekend for Malaysian politics.

On Jan. 7, the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) held its annual convention in Shah Alam, Selangor.

Mahathir named as PM candidate

PH’s Secretary General Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the 92-year-old former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, would be the coalition’s candidate for PM in the upcoming general election.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), was also nominated as the coalition’s choice for Deputy Prime Minister.

The plan was for Mahathir to be interim PM until Anwar takes over after receiving a royal pardon.

What’s the big deal:

Anwar was once a protege of Mahathir, and the rising star of Malaysian politics, but they had a falling-out in the late 1990s.

He was jailed on charges of sodomy and graft, after being sacked as the deputy prime minister.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is one of the main opposition parties in Malaysia. It was headed by Anwar Ibrahim before he was jailed for the second time on sodomy charges. His wife Wan Azizah took over as the party’s President.

Today it works together with Mahathir’s new party, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), and a couple of other opposition parties in the PH coalition.

The Mahathir-Anwar partnership sees their relationship come full circle after nearly two decades of bitter feuding.

Mahathir addressed this at the convention:

“It wasn’t easy for him (Anwar) to accept me. Yes, we could shake hands, but to accept me as an opposition leader against UMNO wasn’t easy. That’s why we took a long time, but in the end, priority was given to the struggle against Najib.

“Anwar’s family suffered for 20 years and for them to forget this wasn’t easy. I owe them and I say thank you to Anwar and his family.”

Anwar to be released in June

On Jan. 6, at the launch of the PH convention, Wan Azizah remarked during her speech:

“Insyallah (God willing) he will be released from prison on June. 11.”

This is the first time anyone had given an actual date for Anwar’s release after serving a five-year sentence for sodomy.

Anwar started serving the sentence in February 2015, meaning he would be released in 2020. But prisoners in Malaysia often get a one-third reduction of their sentences for good behaviour.

This seemed of little consequence at first, as under Malaysian law, a person is banned from political activities for five more years after the end of their prison sentence.

But if the PH does win and obtains a royal pardon for Anwar, he would be free to get back into politics.

It was not immediately clear how Anwar would become the next PM, if he is still in prison when the election is held. The election must be held by August, but it will most likely be held within the next few months instead.

One way to do it would be for a friendly MP to resign from his seat and trigger a by-election. In that case, Anwar can step in, win the by-election, become an MP and thus be eligible to be nominated as PM if the PH is in power.

What’s the big deal:

Anwar is currently serving a 5-year sentence in prison on sodomy charges.

In Jan. 2012, he was found not guilty by the High Court, but the government appealed the decision. In March 2012, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Anwar to prison.

Once freed from jail, the 70-year-old charismatic politician could inject energy into the opposition movement.

His ability to get voters excited about his “reform agenda” and in uniting the opposition shook Malaysian politics in the 2008 and 2013 polls. The opposition in 2008 captured five of Malaysia’s 13 state assemblies. And in 2013, the united opposition for the first time won the popular vote.

However, BN’s strategy may also change after his release as it gives them an opportunity to bring back the old stories about the Mahathir-Anwar breakup in 1998.

 Anything can happen

Everything now hinges on PH pulling off a stunning electoral victory over the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which will make Mahathir the world’s oldest Head of Government.

Bernama quoted Abdullah as saying that if the PH won, it would “immediately” begin legal proceedings to obtain a Royal Pardon from Malaysia’s monarch and Head of Stateto release Anwar from prison.

Reading from a document titled “Consensus of the PH”, he added:

“This is so that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim can immediately act in the Federal Government and then be appointed as the 8th prime minister.”

Abdullah confirmed that this Consensus was signed by leaders of the PH coalition including Mahathir, Wan Azizah, PPBM President Muhyiddin Yassin, Democratic Action Party (DAP) chairman Tan Kok Wai, and Amanah (National Trust Party) President Mohamad Sabu.

Pic from Wan Azizah’s Facebook.

That’s a lot of hoops to jump through.

At a press conference, the Star quoted Mahathir as saying that “there were a lot of processes that had to be met” before Anwar could take over from him as PM.

When asked if he would serve one full term as PM or vacate his position earlier to make way for Anwar, Mahathir replied that he was 92 years old and that “anything could happen”.

If Mahathir does beat Najib and become the world’s oldest government leader, truly anything can happen in Malaysian politics.

Top image by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images.

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About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about film, pop-culture and international politics, which you are very welcome to read here.

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