Malaysian Prime Ministerial candidate Mahathir Mohamad

What on earth has happened to Malaysian politics over the past few days? That’s what the country’s long-time opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, must be contemplating as he wallows inside his prison cell about 25 kilometres north-west of Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia’s political wheel hasn’t just turned, it has turned inside out: the person responsible for Ibrahim being in jail has now become his political champion.

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To understand the tumultuous irony in all this, you need to wind the clock back to the 1990s when Ibrahim was being groomed as Malaysia’s heir-apparent to then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Then his world came crashing down. He was imprisoned on trumped-up sodomy charges and, on release, established a viable opposition alliance against Mahathir’s successors — and was again returned to prison, again on spurious sodomy charges.

But here’s the rub: the person most responsible for sending Ibrahim to jail, Mahathir Mohamad, is now the lead candidate for Ibrahim’s political alliance.

Mahathir, now 92, has been elected as prime ministerial candidate for the four-party opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH, Pact of Hope) alliance. The opposition grouping represents a major challenge to the rule of the National Front (BN) government, which has held office unbroken since 1957.

Mahathir, who spent 22 years as prime minister until 2003, headed the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which was the key party in the BN government. The BN government has managed to retain political power through heavy gerrymandering of electoral seats and buying the support of smaller opposition parties.  

Elections are due in Malaysia in June 2018, but embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak has indicated he could call early elections to take advantage of indecision in the Islam Mandate Party (PAS). PAS hopes to place itself as a third force in Malaysia’s politics. The opposition alliance may struggle to win government without PAS’ support, while the ruling BN has been rumored to be supporting PAS in its northern rural base.

Ibrahim established the predecessor party to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), which remains central to the PH alliance, which he also headed. Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, assumed leadership of both the PKR and the alliance after Ibrahim was again jailed in 2014.

Mahathir has been an increasingly outspoken critic of Razak, who has been deeply implicated in the “1MDB” corruption scandal in which around a billion dollars from the government development fund ended up in Razak’s personal bank accounts and billions more have gone missing. Joining the opposition alliance, Mahathir has noted, sets him against a political organisation he spent 60 years building.

In the midst of Ibrahim’s trial on sodomy charges, Mahathir openly claimed that Ibrahim was guilty. Ibrahim had his conviction overturned in 2004, but was re-sentenced in 2014 following his opposition alliance winning the popular vote, but not quite a majority of seats, in the 2013 elections.

Now Mahathir has u-turned, promising that if he becomes prime minister — at 92 the world’s oldest leader — he will seek Ibrahim’s early release from prison and hand him the prime ministership. Ibrahim has said from prison that he accepts Mahathir’s selection as lead candidate.

So what’s really going on? It may be that Mahathir has come to realise that the non-accountable, self-serving political monster he created is out of control – just as Anwar Ibrahim did in the late 1990s. And it may be, after two decades of bitter rivalry — a fair slice of which Ibrahim has been in jail — that Mahathir and Ibrahim are “getting the band back together”.

But, again sitting in that jail cell, one would have to think Anwar Ibrahim might be reflecting, from a slightly jaundiced perspective, on the nature and pitfalls of his political relationship with the person who is now appears as his political saviour.  

*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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