Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

In one corner is Malaysia’s 94-year-old premier, Mahathir Mohamad. In the other is his nemesis-turned-ally and presumed successor, 72-year-old Anwar Ibrahim.

When the two long-time rivals last traded figurative blows in a spectacular 1998 feud, the latter landed in prison with a literal black eye. This time around, Mahathir claims, it’s the media that is pining for a fight. 

“If Anwar and I were to fight in a boxing match, you will be even happier because you can write more stories,” the premier recently jested to reporters. 

Mahathir prefaced his remark with an oft-repeated vow to step down from office after Malaysia hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November.

But despite his recurrent promise of a smooth leadership transition, the country’s rumor mill continues to spin wildly with whispers of conspiratorial plots and backroom deal-making to thwart Anwar’s bid.

Voices on both sides of the political aisle, meanwhile, are calling for Mahathir to continue as prime minister for a full five-year term rather than step down to make way for Anwar’s ascension.

The rising uncertainty threatens to hit stability and investor sentiment, with some analysts now predicting that Malaysia’s first post-independence change of government could end in a single-term administration.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

The ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, an unlikely alliance of rivals and once-bitter adversaries that includes both Mahathir’s and Anwar’s respective political parties, rose to power in May 2018, toppling the scandal-plagued but long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) in a shock election result.

PH’s parties now hold a comfortable parliamentary majority of 139 out of 222 seats.  

That election victory was predicated on a promise that Mahathir – who previously led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 atop the BN – would serve as an interim leader for two years before allowing Anwar, his one-time deputy prime minister and twice jailed political prisoner, to lead.

A fixed succession timeline, however, was never established. While political stability has held since PH took office nearly two years ago, it has nonetheless been beset by scandals, infighting, and accusations it has not delivered on electoral promises.

At the same time, a bitter schism now divides Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the ruling coalition’s largest party. A rejuvenated ethnic Malay-based opposition, meanwhile, has proven adept at preying on those divisions.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party, most recently said it would table a motion of confidence in support of Mahathir when Parliament sits on March 9, a move many view as a political stunt aimed at dividing PH’s component parties and allies on the issue of succession.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang said as much when he hinted the confidence motion aims to scupper “someone who wants to become the prime minister through the backdoor,” a thinly veiled reference to Anwar.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang prefers Mahathir over Anwar. Photo: Twitter

Mahathir has brushed off PAS’ proposal with his trademark sarcasm: “I’m already the Prime Minister, and if they want to support me, thank you,” he reportedly said. 

But if enough lawmakers, both in government and opposition, vote for the confidence motion, Mahathir would be well-placed to withstand pressure to resign should he opt to extend his premiership and renege on his succession vow.

Moreover, opposition proponents argue that handing power to Anwar in that scenario would lack democratic legitimacy.

“PAS is obsessed with the idea that they are the kingmakers of the Malaysian political landscape. That is what they aim to be,” a source close to the ruling coalition who requested anonymity said.

Under the ethno-nationalist opposition alliance Muafakat Nasional (MN), PAS has cemented a partnership with the former ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, the lynchpin of the once-dominant BN coalition.

A string of opposition by-election victories have shaken PH and showcased MN as a resurgent challenger.

By tabling a motion in support of the prime minister, PAS – which holds 18 parliamentary seats – hopes to “prop up Dr. M (Mahathir), block Anwar, split the government and at the same time give notice to their new partners, UMNO, that they are powerful and should not be taken for granted,” the same source told Asia Times.

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a CEO conference in Manila, September 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Rumors about the possible formation of a new “backdoor” government are also widespread, with talk of UMNO and PAS joining forces with Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) in a so-called “Pakatan Nasional” alliance.

Such a scenario would bring together the three largest exclusively ethnic Malay Muslim parties under a single banner in a bid to appeal to the country’s largest and most important vote bank.

Anwar has branded those rumors “lies” and recently implicated PAS along with “a group from UMNO and a small number from PKR” in a campaign to pressure several opposition and federal lawmakers into signing “statutory declarations” in support of Mahathir serving a full five-year term.

The premier, Anwar has so far maintained, is not involved in the alleged plot.  

Opponents of Anwar’s ascension to the premiership tend to be suspicious of the 72-year-old’s moral character and alleged sexual preferences, with many believing he represents pro-Western, liberal leanings relative to the more non-aligned Mahathir.

Vested interests, others say, are truly behind the resistance to Anwar and his proposed economic reforms, including the overhaul of race-based economic policies that have for decades granted preferential treatment to ethnic Malays.

While Mahathir has so far stuck to his handover promise, he has hedged by emphasizing that the actual decision-making power to approve his chosen successor rests with Parliament, not himself.

In a recent Reuters interview, Anwar appeared confident that he would be able to secure a parliamentary majority in such a scenario, despite the factional tumult now roiling his party.

“They support Mahathir as the PM, and they will continue to support me when I assume the premiership,” asserted Anwar, who in the same interview said he was ready to wait for six more months beyond the initially mooted two-year succession timeline.

Anwar Ibrahim (L) walks past Mohamed Azmin Ali (R) at a PKR celebration event. Photo: AFP Forum

PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali leads an influential rival faction that has openly called for Mahathir to continue as prime minister rather than making way for Anwar.

Many speculate the 55-year-old Azmin, who as economic affairs minister holds what is regarded as Malaysia’s most powerful economic portfolio, is Mahathir’s preferred successor. He also is widely thought to be involved in the PAS-led campaign for statutory declaration signatures.

“Azmin has been encouraging and facilitating the statutory declaration sign-up. He has also been diligently following-up with PAS,” said the insider source, who credited the PKR deputy president with “cementing” his faction’s relationship with the Islamist party.  

Whether or not Anwar will have the support of at least 112 parliamentarians, including those of his party’s rival faction, needed to accede to the premiership remains to be seen.

Likewise, if a motion of confidence goes ahead when parliament reconvenes next month and yields a majority, it is unclear if Mahathir would consider staying on for a full five-year term. Malaysia’s next general election is not due until 2023, at which point Mahathir would be 98 years old.

PH leaders are set to convene on February 21 for a presidential council meeting at which Anwar claimed in media comments the leadership transition would be “finalized.”

Mahathir, for his part, has said he was “not sure” if the leadership transition would be discussed there.

All the while questions remain about whom Mahathir actually favors to succeed him, with some convinced he intends to deliver yet another knockout blow to his touted successor and long-time rival.

“As long as Tun (Mahathir) is there, there won’t be a handover to Anwar,” said a ruling coalition source who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

[Reporting from Kuala Lumpur]