Rejected on all sides following the debacle of his toppled premiership in early 2020, Malaysia’s 97 year old former prime minister has none the less thrown himself into the GE15 campaign with another astonishing gambit from a man who never ceases to surprise nor mince his words.
As if the warring BN and PN coalitions were not enough to divide the so-called Ketuanan Melayu vote in the Peninsular, Mahathir has in the past few weeks thrown together his own rival coalition of micro-parties and independent ‘NGO’ candidates to campaign in 122 of the same hotly contested seats.
Among these political novices (only Mahathir and his son Mukhriz are sitting MPs) is a figure widely hated in Sarawak, Ibrahim Ali, the firebrand former leader of the “Malay rights’ group Perkasa, who advocated burning Bibles and admitted receiving a cheque from Najib Razak funded by the looting of 1MDB.
However, Mahathir sees a clear position for his party in its chosen field. As with his former creation, Bersatu, in the previous election, the new Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) [Homeland Party] claims to be a ‘clean option’ to the existing parties focusing on the Malay vote.
Mahathir can be counted on not to mince his words and for his ability to pithily sum up widespread popular opinion:
I felt a need to voice an objection to the kind of government we have… the worst thing that could happen, of course, is the return of this Gang of Crooks who are running the Barisan National to come back as a government. If they come back their main concern is how to save themselves from being jailed for the crimes they have committed. They are not really interested in developing the country or giving the people a good life they are only interested in their own safety. Most of the leaders of BN have committed certain crimes and they know that if they fail to win then the legal action being taken against them may result in their being jailed for their crimes.
Ouch! Mahathir is, of course, primarily referring to the President of UMNO Zahid Hamidi who is widely regarded as the dominant figure in the BN coalition whilst the seemingly impotent Ismail Sabri insists that nonetheless he is the ‘poster boy’ (Ismail’s own words) for the election.
Zahid was recently caught on video chiding his inner circle into action over this ‘mother of all elections’ by warning them that should UMNO fail to retain power it was not only he who faced jail but most of them – in the video he is seen pointing at and naming (in seeming jest) his number two Tok Mat and the long-term defence minister Hishamuddin Hussein (Najib’s cousin) amongst others.
Mahathir berates the decision to hold the election during the flooding season, observing “People can’t move easily, they need to be escorted, need boats etc. So the number of people who mange to vote will be less and this works to the advantage of the BN government because they have the advantage of all the government boats, equipment etc which they can use to ferry to their voters to the voting site whereas the opposition parties not having all the facilities would not be able to vote”
However, the bigger part of the “plan” he says is that;
“Zahid as president of UMNO and BN is due to have his case appear before the courts. He may be found guilty, in which case of course he would suffer the same fate as Najib and before the judgement is in he would like the election to be held so he can become PM and as PM he believes he would be untouchable.
Whatever they [BN] say or promise, in the end Zahid will be the one directing the government because even if he is not PM as president of the party he will be able to manipulate the PM.
In their under-taking all the candidates state that when they win they will propose that Zahid becomes PM.”
Mahathir is referring to an alleged pledge BN candidates have been forced to sign – something the party has denied.
The ex-PM is no more forgiving of other Malay based rival to GTA, affirming prevailing suspicions against his former colleagues from Bersatu, who form the backbone of the rival PN coalition together with the extremist PAS Islamic party.
Bersatu’s president, Muhyiddin deserted Mahathir’s government to snatch the premiership in 2020 with the help of UMNO, however that ruling alliance of the past two years has devolved into squabbling and rival camps for GE15.
Does Mahathir include PN in his allegations of corruption? You bet:
This [BN/PN coalition] government is not the elected government by the people. They came in through the back door, making use of party members crossing over to join them. And because of that PH lost its majority and the party that lost the election has now become the government of the country, this is totally wrong. It may be ‘democracy’ but is not right at all for people who lost the election to become the government.
PN is involved in this. They were the ones who initiated the move to get the supporters of PH to cross over and work with their former opponents, Najib, for example, who they know had committed a lot of crimes. So this is very wrong as our objective in PH was to overthrow Najib.
This action was taken by the president of my party Bersatu (Muhyiddin) as well as [PKR defector] Azmin. Their crossing changed the balance between the winners and losers. So I cannot accept the people who undermine the government elected by the people to become the government. And I notice that somehow or other they seem to have a lot of money and in the present election you will notice their [PN] flags are all over the country. Flags cost money and to have so many flags means they have a lot of money. how did they come by the money, that is the question?
Being Dr Mahathir, he naturally answers his own question: “It is probable that there was a lot of corruption involved. Lack of transparency has resulted in the people who rule the country, the members of the government, to steal money… it must have been through corruption because they have been in power only a short while, they couldn’t be supported by business people and the like. But the 20 months they formed the government was enough time for them to get money through corruption and bribery”
There is no doubt that Dr Mahathir expresses what very many are thinking. Top of PH’s interrupted reform agenda has been government transparency and the subsequent slew of scandals under PN/BN have even included disputed contracts secretly handed out during the election period after the dissolution of parliament itself.
The logic would therefore be that Mahathir should be supporting his former allies from PH and their anti-corruption agenda at this election. PH is now united and led by Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir had agreed to hand over to at the last election. His failure to do so in a timely fashion was at the heart of the disruption that led to that government’s collapse.
However, as the old man admits, PH have rejected his engagement. So, has Bersatu whom the doctor now berates for its unexplained election coffers. Only the veteran politician himself, it seems, and the band of followers who remember his years of government as being stable times, believe that another term of office is a viable prospect – the rest have decided that the sharp tonged nonagenarian is yesterday’s man and too hot to handle.
Mahathir prefers to claim that his isolation owes more to the need to offer Malay voters a Malay centric party that is free from corruption, unlike UMNO/BN and unlike Bersatu/PN which were both formerly run by him.
PH will be unacceptable to Malays, he claims, because it contains DAP which he says proved itself to be dominated by Chinese chauvinism during his own term of office. At the time, of course, Mahathir had relied heavily on the loyalty of DAP and indeed the previous election was won by the very same coalition of forces.
It was Najib, Mahathir accepts, who sought to revive and exploit the racist thread through Malaysian politics after being cornered by criminal proceedings:
“What happened was Najib lost the election. He realised the winning party was multi-racial so he started playing up this idea that we should have a Malay Muslim government [the PN/BN brand of 2020-22]. Of course the winning party [PH] was not Malay Muslim it is multi-racial. So by doing that he undermined the loyalty of Malays in the government parties who then decided to cross over and give Najib the majority so that Najib becomes part of the government”.
Many would say that Mahathir, whilst being entirely accurate in this description of the strategy adopted by the now convicted Najib Razak, is playing down his own role in racist politics.
Mahathir’s flirtation with the ‘Malay Identity’ movement preceded the collapse of the Malay support for his own government not least because it caused many to believe that he would himself join the rebellion at the time. Many continue to suspect that he tacitly supported the collapse of his own administration.
An even more unspeakable suggestion for the old man, although doubtless the more correct interpretation, is that he merely failed at his own high wire political juggling act. Mahathir has never condoned or come over to support the deserters and he remains a powerful voice condemning the corruption of the Malay political establishment.
Indeed, whilst competing for the ‘Ketuanan Malayu’ vote and setting himself up against the Chinese ‘chauvinist’ vote it can be said he is in fact making the case for the inclusive politics of the multi-racial PH coalition and serving to divide the Ketuanan Malayu vote not just two ways (which already proved fatal at the last election) but three ways.
He cannot be allied with DAP at this election as before, he claims (having been rejected anyway) because of their previous ‘arrogance’ during his own period in office which alienated those Malays who had risked trust in collaboration. Tough ‘reform’ measures by the DAP controlled finance ministry threatened to slash Malay jobs and fuelled the support for the Muhyiddin coup against him.
Mahathir takes no blame for that debacle and makes big claims for the original 13 seats won by his Bersatu party out of the 52 the PH coalition had given it to contest in GE14:
“As you know PH won the [GE14] election because I brought in a Malay party and with the support of the Malays PH was able to win. But after PH had won they became very arrogant and condemned me – many member of DAP condemned me – and this gave grounds for the Malays to accuse PH of being run by DAP and they reject DAP. That is why most Malays from my party and Keadilan left the party to join the opposition. If I go back to PH the Malays will not go back, they will withdraw support from me if I go back to PH because they were very much against DAP which they claim in a Chinese chauvinist party.”
PH has taken a gamble at this election by dispensing with the race based politics and deal-making with minority parties that has characterised the Mahathir era. It worked for several years to give UMNO dominance, but divided the country, a diverse federation of allied states, along poisonous communal lines.
As Mahathir, plainly now accepts that dominance descended into hopeless corruption and impunity for the establishment Malays. A massive new youth vote looks poised to bring a whole new element into the election, either they will vote along the lines their parents did in Mahathir’s day or they will reach out to more inclusive parties with the same anti-corruption agenda Mahathir says he champions:
In by-elections more than 60% did not vote. They feel disgusted with the politicians, so they didn’t vote and we also know many are fed up with politicians and feel it’s not worth voting because even if you elect the government it can be changed. But the law has been changed to prevent people from ‘hopping’ from one party to another, so we are telling people this time around the back door government cannot be carried out, because people can’t hop. On the other hand if you don’t vote and the crooks pay money to vote then the crooks will win – BN will win because they will have the money and they will have the government instruments to win. So we are telling them if you don’t vote you are in fact voting for the crooks to take over as the government. So, almost 60% of the people who are disinclined to vote, we are persuading them that this time around you must vote and our party allows people who are non-politicians, not members of political parties, to even become candidates in the election… we hope people will see it is in their interest to support a party that is clean, that has no baggage from the past. If they see that then GTA has a chance”
It is clear Mahathir and his former bedfellows at PKR and DAP agree on the problems and share the same objectives, but disagree on the means to that end. They complain he will split the vote, but whether he splits the vote against them or in their favour – or makes much impact at all in this election – remains to be seen.