Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and People’s Justice Party (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim have over the past few days hardened their respective positions on becoming the opposition’s candidate for prime minister. Each one insists, seemingly more doggedly with each passing day, on his position. Mahathir believes that with him as standard-bearer, the opposition Alliance of Hope (PH) can attract the voters that have traditionally supported the Malay-centric United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), both of which are now in the ruling National Alliance (PN).
Mahathir has offered Anwar a six-month timetable for a succession should PH regain power, which the Anwar camp rebuffed, citing Mahathir’s previous reluctance to concede the position when PH was in control. Anwar has countered with an offer for Mahathir to become “minister-mentor,” but the former PM rejected the idea immediately, explaining that his experience was that he would only be ignored in a generic advisory position.
Surprisingly, Mahathir has the support of the Democratic Action Party (DAP, 42 seats in parliament), which is generally seen as reflecting the ethnic Chinese vote and has historically been allied with Anwar. Also on Mahathir’s side are the PAS-breakaway National Trust Party (Amanah, 11 seats) and the regionally-focused Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan, 9 seats). The alignments indicate a pragmatic realization by the parties that Mahathir and his then-Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), which is now on the side of the government, likely tipped the 2018 vote against the then ruling National Front (BN). Anwar is being backed by PKR, whose members distrust Mahathir strongly. PH is now sniping at PKR members, hoping to trigger defections even while the uncertainty persists.
The alliance is still salvageable, because both sides know that separately their chance of regaining power is close to nil; however, the brinkmanship may not only result in a real breakup of the Mahathir-Anwar partnership and the collapse of PH, but even now lower public support for the opposition. PH won the 2018 vote on a combination of factors: broad public unhappiness with the goods and services tax (GST), the corruption allegations against former prime minister Najib Razak, and Mahathir’s ability to penetrate Malay constituencies formerly controlled by UMNO. Whether these factors will again work in PH’s favor remains to be seen; however, one emotional appeal that PH may make to the public in case of a reconciliation of its leaders and a definite timeline for a succession is that it would allow one of the most anticipated political transitions — from Mahathir to Anwar — to finally happen.
The opposition infighting may encourage Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to call elections later this year once greater normalcy has been restored — for which he will claim credit — and before the effects of the stimulus program dissipate. Yassin has a slim 113-108 majority in the Lower House, and next month’s session resumption, after only a single day sitting in May, could provide strong signals as to how secure his position is. However, Yassin may also need to watch his back, as his own party, Bersatu, competes in many of the same districts as the UMNO and PAS.