The Reign of Mahathir Mohamed

As Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) held their inaugural annual general meeting, just a year after their founding, the standout name on the lineup was a familiar face to Malaysian politics: Party leader and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. Having retired from politics in 2003, stepping down as Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Mahathir’s influence over the political processes in Malaysia never truly left, with his strong support within the government and enduring popularity with the ethnic Malays who comprise the majority of Malaysia making him a crucial piece in the internal politics of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).


In his 22 years as Malaysia’s leader, he established an iron grip on the leadership for himself, and for his party, UMNO: the separation between the judiciary and the executive was degraded, cronyism ran rampant and political opponents were often jailed under his Internal Security Act. His autocratic reign did however oversee a period of rapid development for Malaysia, in terms of infrastructure, economic growth, and urbanisation, for which many credit him. Since his initial retirement, Malaysia’s growth has slowed, and corruption has continued to plague the government. Most notably, the current Prime Minister – Najib Tun Razak – is embroiled in a billion dollar scandal that has attracted the attention of the US Attorney General, for, among other offences, using illegitimate funds to help finance The Wolf of Wall Street. As a result Mahathir remains a distinctly divisive figure with a contested legacy in Malaysian politics.


These divisions have now seeped into the new opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), made up of PPBM, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – which mostly gains support from urban, ethnically Chinese voters, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah. The coalition as it stands is fractured, their original de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been jailed twice for sodomy charges many suspect to be fabricated, once in 1998, under the reign of Mahathir, and again in 2014, when he was given a 5 year sentence he is still serving now. Additionally, since the last general election, the Islamist PAS has left the coalition and has now formed a third coalition, causing the splinter Amanah party to rise in the place of PAS. Additionally, much of the urban Chinese vote that comprises much of the support base for PH have significant opposition to Mahathir, who they see as a corrupt despot.


It was in this fractured environment that the PPBM annual general meeting took place. This meeting was the clearest sign yet of Mahathir’s desire to lead PH into the next election, which will take place in 2018. A number of speakers preceded the 92-year-old former ruler, including one from his son, and Vice-President of PPBM, Mukhriz Mahathir. each one singing his praises and making the case for Mahathir as a leader of the coalition. With the lack of a clearer leader of the coalition, and the election fast approaching, Mahathir is looking to position himself as the obvious candidate for leadership. However, his speech highlighted the key issue he has to overcome to become PH leader, his distinct unpopularity amongst those who traditionally oppose the government. In it, Mahathir apologised for previous indiscretions and mistakes made when he was Prime Minister, and promised judicial reform and a strengthening of Malaysia’s anti-corruption body. The issue for Mahathir remains that he must convince the other parties in PH that he has truly transformed from authoritarian-in-chief to a true democrat, and while his speech at the annual general meeting may have been a start, he has a long way to go to convince them that he sincerely believes in a democratic Malaysia, rather than simply wishing to take back power after falling out with current PM Najib.


The distrust of Mahathir within PH is evident from the conditions reportedly laid down by PKR that he must agree to if he wants to become interim Prime Minister in the unlikely event that PH win enough seats to form a government. The first is the release of Anwar Ibrahim so that he can act as Prime Minister, the second a guarantee of a higher number of electoral seats given to PKR when deciding which to contest, and the third is institutional reform. PKR are aware they will need Mahathir to make inroads into the Malay vote that they need badly if they want to have any hope in an election, as the boundaries of the constituencies heavily favour rural Malays who traditionally support BN and they have lost Malay support due to the split with PAS. However, PKR remain wary of the potential costs of courting the influence of the grand old man of Malaysian politics, and pro-democracy activists in Malaysia are despairing at the prospect of a choice between Mahathir, and the equally autocratic Najib. It is with this prospect that two questions now loom over the future of Mahathir and PH. Will Mahathir lead the coalition into the 2018 General Election? And, if so, Can he truly represent the change that PH want to see?