Malaysian rivals Mahathir and Anwar ally again amid turmoil

Malaysian rivals Mahathir and Anwar ally again amid turmoil

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad will stand for prime minister on behalf of the former ruling coalition, he said on Saturday, less than a week after he quit and plunged the country into political turmoil.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

That meant that Mahathir, who as interim prime minister is the world’s oldest government leader at 94, reunited with on-off ally and long-term rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72, resuming a pact that swept their coalition to a surprise election victory in 2018.

The move averted a showdown between the men whose struggle has shaped Malaysian politics for two decades, but which risked sidelining both and returning to power the corruption-tarnished former ruling party they had defeated.

“I am now confident that I have the numbers needed to garner majority support,” Mahathir said in a statement.

In a statement, their coalition said, “Pakatan Harapan states its full support toward Dr Mahathir as candidate for prime minister”. Anwar posted the statement on Twitter in an apparent show of personal support.

Mahathir has thus potentially secured the backing he needs to return as prime minister full-time.

The political futures of both men had appeared in doubt on Friday, with Anwar competing as a candidate in his own right and Mahathir finding little support for a unity government that would have strengthened his power.

A new alliance had formed behind former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, who had the backing of the old ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Islamist party PAS.

It was UMNO’s ruling coalition that Mahathir and Anwar united to drive from power in 2018 under then prime minister Najib Razak, who now faces graft charges.


“Pakatan only has one candidate that could win the support of the majority of the MPs, Mahathir not Anwar,” said analyst Adib Zalkapli of Bower Group Asia.

“Anwar will have to fight another day. Today is all about stopping UMNO and PAS from returning to government.”

UMNO, which Mahathir led from 1981 to 2003 during a previous stint as prime minister, supports Malay nationalism.

Its fortunes have risen since its 2018 election defeat, with the Pakatan coalition losing five by-elections in the face of criticism from some Malay voters that it should do more to favour the biggest ethnic group in the country of 32 million.

Still in doubt, however, was Mahathir’s backing from his own Bersatu party, which had swung behind Muhyiddin.

One member of Bersatu’s ruling council said it still backed Mahathir, but later retracted the statement.

At the root of the squabble between Mahathir and Anwar has been the prime minister’s pre-election promise to one day hand power to the younger man, though no date was ever set.

Neither Mahathir nor Pakatan Harapan made any mention of that promise on Saturday.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim smiles during a news conference in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy and a rising political star when Mahathir was prime minister the first time, but they fell out over how to tackle the Asian financial crisis.

Anwar was arrested and jailed in the late 1990s for sodomy and corruption, charges that he and his supporters denied, maintaining that they were aimed at ending his political career.

As well as personal relationships, politics in Malaysia is shaped by a tangle of ethnic, religious and regional interests. Malaysia is more than half ethnic Malay, but has large ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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