Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech during "The Future of Asia" conference in Tokyo on June 11, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Kazuhiro Nogi
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech during "The Future of Asia" conference in Tokyo on June 11, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Kazuhiro Nogi

The first signs of public friction came, as they frequently do, in dividing up the spoils of victory. A mere three days after the May 9 elections, Rafizi Ramli of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat criticized Malaysia’s new prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for excluding PKR members from new ministerial appointments.

Daim Zainuddin, a former finance minister who is back as a member of the Council of Eminent Persons, claimed that it would be “foolish“ for Anwar Ibrahim to become prime minister immediately after getting elected to the parliament. It was an ominous start for a new government coalition back in May. Seven months later, tensions show no sign of abating.

After the initial euphoria in Malaysia following the election, a crucial question is what the 93-year-old prime minister’s game plan is. The tactical alliance between Mahathir and Anwar proved a successful political marriage of convenience in bringing down the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). That Mahathir would be Pakatan Harapan’s candidate for prime minister and that Anwar would be his likely successor was a key aspect of this deal.

Dr M, as the prime minister is known, quickly took the reins of power. Anwar was released from prison, pardoned and elected to parliament. The essence of the deal has been respected. In a seeming replay of 1998, Mahathir is again the prime minister and Anwar his heir-apparent.

As it was in 1998, this is the moment things get tricky. While the Anwar camp may see Mahathir as an interim prime minister, what is Dr M’s game plan?

First, Mahathir showed both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan that he was the game changer. It is with Dr M that the opposition to UMNO carried the day.

Najib Razak is the fifth Mahathir protégé that the mentor has brought down over the past four decades. He previously ditched Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba, Anwar Ibrahim and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Bringing down Najib and putting an end to his excesses was a major achievement. Managing this from the political wilderness is a testament to his popularity and skill. His comeback solidified his legacy as the most consequential Malaysian politician since the country’s independence.

Second, Mahathir faces the question of what to do with his current status and power. How does he proceed to convert his electoral win into a longer-lasting outcome? Building up his party – Bersatu – will take time but with the perks of government appointments come incentives for new members and UMNO defectors. Alternatively, is a takeover of UMNO an option for Dr M? After all, Dr M was expelled from UMNO in 1969 and returned in 1970.

Third, Mahathir’s pick of a successor is a recurring issue. While the Anwar camp may have seen Mahathir as a transitional figure, is the Mahathir camp angling to make Anwar a transitional figure? Anwar is trying to walk a tightrope with his former mentor Mahathir and his former protégé Azmin Ali at the same time. If Anwar decides to sit idly, he risks being outmaneuvered. If he takes ever more visible steps to position himself as the next prime minister, he risks the Mahathir camp’s backlash.

Anwar is 71, about the age Mahathir was when the former challenged him back in 1998. Azmin, Anwar’s longtime aide, is about the age Anwar was when he made a move for the top job 20 years ago. In a potential replay of the protégé challenging the mentor, the Azmin camp may see Anwar as the old guard in much the same way the Anwar camp saw Mahathir back in 1998.

Add to this Mahathir’s appointment of Azmin as economic affairs minister and Azmin’s recent victory for the No 2 post in PKR. Here, Anwar’s predicament is reminiscent of 1998 minus his age advantage. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Mahathir camp will seek to make Anwar a transitional figure to pave the way for a member of their own.

Hamza Karčić is assistant professor of international relations at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

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