Elderly statesman Mahathir Mohamad has officially become the standard bearer for Malaysia’s opposition, with the 92-year-old former longtime leader saying he is prepared to take the helm in the hopes of unseating scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak through upcoming elections.
But reactions from observers and government officials have been mixed to the opposition’s move to pick the former prime minister, who ruled for 22 years from 1981 to 2003 and developed a reputation as an autocratic ruler, as its main hope for defeating the incumbent.
Malaysian opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) over the weekend named Mahathir as its prime ministerial hopeful after the country’s general election, which is due by August, although Najib is expected to call the polls earlier on in 2018.
“I thank you for nominating me as prime minister. I’m already 92 years, I won’t be there for long,” Mahathir, who will turn 93 in July, said to cheers during a convention held by the opposition bloc on Sunday.
Should PH win the election, Mahathir would serve as prime minister to pave the way for his once bitter foe, imprisoned opposition de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, to take over as PM if granted a royal pardon for a sodomy conviction, officials said. Without the pardon, Anwar would be barred from politics for five years.
Sunday’s decision means that Mahathir could return as prime minister 15 years after he stepped down from the position.
The four opposition PH parties unanimously appointed Mahathir during their convention to challenge Najib, the leader of the Barisan Nasional coalition and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party.
“The good thing is PH can lay claim to having an experienced candidate on its side and that it can make critical choices in the run-up to the 14th general election, by consensus,” Azmi Hassan, a Malaysian geopolitical analyst, told BenarNews.
“The bad thing is that choosing Mahathir may distance a lot of voters as he had a lot of bad history. This factor matters the most to on-the-fence voters,” he added.
Another analyst, Hisomuddin Bakar with the independent research firm Ilham Center, described the move as bold.
“It would greatly impact Malay voters in urban and semi-urban areas,” he told BenarNews, referring to constituents from Malaysia’s ethnic majority who make up the voting base of UMNO, Mahathir’s former party.
But Khairy Jamaluddin, the current minister for youth and sports, said Mahathir’s candidacy would cause political instability.
“This will cause upheaval in PKR and create uncertainty among investors, not knowing how long Mahathir will be prime minister before Anwar takes over,” Khairy told reporters on Sunday, referring to Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR).
In a series of tweets, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a minister in Prime Minister Department, lambasted the choice of Mahathir, but hailed it as “absolutely good news” for BN.
“PH shows how all these years of talking of reform and giving young people a chance were mere rhetoric,” one of his tweets read.
Putting the past behind
Mahathir came out of retirement amid allegations that billions of dollars from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) were misused by Najib and others. Mahathir has since branded Najib, his one-time protégé, as corrupt and has led calls for his resignation. Najib has denied allegations of wrongdoing in the 1MDB affair.
“The main goal now is to topple UMNO and Najib,” Mahathir told journalists on Sunday.
As an autocratic leader decades ago, Mahathir threw several opposition leaders into jail, including Anwar in the late 1990s.
“It wasn’t easy for the parties that were formerly my enemies to accept me, but they know the importance of bringing down the current government,” Mahathir said.
“Those who were uneasy with me, my policies … my actions and although it is difficult for them, they realize that what is important is not the past, but what is in the future.”
Anwar is serving a five-year jail term for sodomy – a charge that he and his supporters insist is politically motivated. He is set to be released on June 8, according to the Prison Department.
Sunday’s announcement also saw Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the People’s Justice Party president, being named as the opposition’s hopeful for the job of deputy prime minister, should the opposition win the election.
While a date for the general election has not been announced, PH is not recognized formally as a political alliance. The Registrar of Societies (ROS) demanded additional documents, which the opposition submitted.
The ROS director could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Hareez Lee in Shah Alam, Malaysia, and Hata Wahari contributed to this report.