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When news broke that Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali had been accused of having a sexual relationship with a man, which is illegal in Malaysia, seasoned observers of the country’s political scene were not surprised.

Anwar Ibrahim (center) meets supporters after submitting his documents at the nomination center for the by-election in Port Dickson, Malaysia, on September 29, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP/Adli Ghazali

After all, we had been here before, Malaysian prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy after falling out with Mahathir Mohamad in 1998. He was subsequently convicted and jailed. Anwar has consistently claimed innocence and maintained the charges were designed to end his political career.

And this latest accusation against Anwar Ali is a sign of a well-concocted political conspiracy against him. And those who are familiar with developments in the People’s Justice Party (PJP), which both Anwar and Azmin emerged from, should not be surprised by the saga.

But who is out to get Azmin? What is the purpose of doing all this?

Well, this saga has long been in the pipeline and is the consequence of the boiling over of months of tensions between the Azmin and Anwar camps. I dare say that it was the decision by Prime Minister Mahathir to appoint Latheefa Koya as chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) that led Azmin’s detractors to make their move.

It is an open secret that the relationship between Azmin and Anwar went south a long time ago and they have made no effort to conceal it.

For example, back in March when Anwar’s daughter Nurul called Mahathir a dictator and slammed his government for its slow delivery on campaign promises, Anwar rushed to play down his daughter’s words and said his whole family still supported the prime minister.

However, instead of helping party president Anwar to douse the fire, Economic Minister Azmin, who also happens to be the deputy president of the PJP, decided to inflame the situation further by tweeting, “This country needs doers who are prepared to tough it out all the way, not crybabies.Whatever it takes, we must make it work. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

This tweet is widely seen as a swipe against Nurul Anwar and is a clear sign that the two men are at odds with each other.

Azmin is mistrusted by many allies of Anwar, who resented his close ties with Mahathir. When Anwar was still in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and held the position of deputy prime minister, Azmin, Anwar’s principal private secretary, was known to be close to Mahathir. This fact was further confirmed by Azmin himself.

In a September 2018 speech to party members, Azmin revealed that his relationship with Mahathir went back a long way and he even called Mahathir “Uncle” in private. He revealed that Mahathir even attended his wedding and introduced him to Anwar.

Hence when Azmin decided to side with Mahathir and attacked Nurul Anwar, many pro-Anwar supporters viewed the incident as a further confirmation of Azmin’s disloyalty to Anwar.

There are clear signs of lingering mistrust between the Mahathir and Anwar camps, and Mahathir’s decision to appoint Azmin to the position of economic affairs minister after winning the 2018 Malaysian general election caught many in the Anwar camp wrong-footed. Azmin has proved himself to be a capable leader since he assumed the cabinet position and is seen by many as a potential future prime minister.

Many supporters of Anwar have suspected that Mahathir is out to derail Anwar’s rise to the premiership despite the former’s repeated assurances that he will honor his campaign promise to hand over power to him in 2020.

Another big factor in why they viewed Azmin as a threat to Anwar is the former’s experience and age. Azmin is 16 years younger than Anwar and accumulated vital governing experience as chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, from 2014 to 2018) and in his current position as economic affairs minister. Azmin would have been a good choice to succeed Mahathir as prime minister to lead the new Malaysia into the future.

Anwar, on the other hand, is already 71 years old and his last job with the government was in 1998 as deputy prime minister. His impending ascension to the premiership is bound to raise awkward questions regarding his ability to lead Malaysia into the next chapter.

Hence when Prime Minister Mahathir appointed staunch Anwar critic Latheefa Koya as the MACC chief commissioner, it was seen by many in the Anwar camp as a move by Mahathir to check Anwar. Many Anwar supporters also fear that Azmin will be elevated to higher positions should Mahathir decided to reshuffle his cabinet. Hence the divide in the PJP is deep-rooted and doesn’t bode well for the future of the ruling coalition as the PJP is the biggest party in the Pakatan Harapan coalition.

This entire Azmin saga is the ugly manifestation of a bitter internal power struggle between the Anwar and Azmin factions in the PJP as the 2020 deadline for Mahathir to hand over power to Anwar nears

And quite interestingly, Muhammad Haziq Abdul Aziz, the man who has accused Azmin Ali, is the senior private aide to Deputy Primary Industries and Commodities Minister  Shamsul Iskandar. Shamsul is a firm ally of Anwar and he rallied behind him after Azmin questioned his decision to make several party leadership appointments in the aftermath of the party’s 2018 internal election. Aziz also interned with the office of then minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri prior to Barisan Nasional’s defeat in the 2018 general election.

And after the saga broke, allies of Anwar urged Azmin to go on leave pending the completion of the investigation and called on Mahathir to set a clear timetable to hand over power.  Once you link all these points together, it is hard not to deduce that there is probably a conspiracy between the Anwar faction and the opposition to bring about the downfall of Azmin. However, Anwar has denied that his camp was behind the video.

Aziz even dared Latheefa to investigate him and Azmin, prompting Latheefa to announce that she will not be the one leading the investigation. Aziz knows that Latheefa and Azmin are firm political allies and he knows that having Latheefa leading the investigation would invite accusations of bias and political interference that would further smear Azmin’s political reputation.

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Anwar himself has stood by Azmin and rejected the accusations as gutter politics. However, seasoned observers will note that his support for Azmin is not 100% unconditional as he said, “We also fully support investigations by the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in this case and hope that the processes can be carried out fairly and carefully,”

And having been investigated and charged with sodomy before, Anwar himself will know that drawing the MACC and police into it will lead Azmin to be implicated in a lengthy legal investigation even if it proves Azmin is innocent. Ironically, this clears the pathway for Anwar to take over the top job in 2020 with no credible opponent.

Hence this entire Azmin saga is the ugly manifestation of a bitter internal power struggle between the Anwar and Azmin factions in the PJP as the 2020 deadline for Mahathir to hand over power to Anwar nears. And this saga carries grave implications for the stability of the Pakatan Harapan government.

This doesn’t bode well for Pakatan Harapan or Malaysia, as the PJP may splinter and this saga may be the beginning of the end of the Pakatan Harapan government.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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