The unthinkable is happening in Malaysian politics. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad and his jailed former deputy Anwar Ibrahim have joined hands in a seemingly impossible alliance to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak. Never before in Malaysian history have such sworn enemies buried their hatchets for a common cause.
By launching his rainbow ‘core group’ of concerned citizens of various political stripes and leanings to ‘Save Malaysia’, Mahathir has once again thrust himself into the eye of the political storm. With Anwar still in jail, the disparate forces that opposed Najib over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) investment fund scandal have finally found someone of stature to rally around in a marriage of convenience. It is ironic that the man who crushed the opposition while in power has reinvented himself in retirement as the de facto leader of what in essence is a citizens’ revolt.
Mahathir himself described this as a ‘very strange group of people’, brought together by a common goal of ousting the scandal-hit prime minister. By calling it a ‘core group’, Mahathir is indicating that this is only the beginning of more moves to come. What could emerge down the road is still hazy. But it is safe to say that a new era in Malaysian politics is unfolding with the key players jostling for a place in the shifting ground.
Broadly speaking, politics and the people have become polarised into two groups. The first is pro-Najib, anchored around the ruling party — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Opponents within and outside UMNO are being crippled or threatened one-by-one. The second group is basically the rest — the anti-Najib forces comprising of nearly 50 of the country’s public luminaries.
As expected, Najib’s lieutenants have dismissed Mahathir’s latest strategy as leading nowhere. Some have even belittled Mahathir’s resignation from the UMNO — his second since he forced his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to resign in 2008 — as something of a joke. Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi has painted Mahathir’s move as unconstitutional. And UMNO Youth have challenged the Mahathir-led movement to become a formal coalition and challenge the UMNO-led ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) in a general election.
But any misplaced sense of confidence on the part of UMNO could backfire. Mahathir’s second quitting may indeed not amount to much within UMNO, given that Najib has got the party effectively button-holed. But it would be foolhardy to take lightly what the 90-year-old warhorse is now doing. It may well lead to big changes in Malaysian politics. Although the UMNO-led BN won control of parliament in the last general election, it actually lost the popular vote. The people’s confidence has shifted towards the then Anwar-led opposition.
Given Najib’s current scandals, which have been a lightning rod against UMNO, an election, if held today, could conceivably lead to the defeat of UMNO and the BN ruling coalition it leads. Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, the deposed chief minister of Kedah state, said as much, noting that ‘the opposition could easily win the next general election’. The opposition says it has thrown its support behind Mahathir in a shared sense of urgency to save the country before more damage is done.
Mahathir’s ‘core group’ could be variously described as having features of civil disobedience, a people’s power movement, even a de facto ‘new opposition’. Prior to its launch, there had been talk of similar and overlapping moves, such as Zaid Ibrahim’s initiative for a closed-door gathering of like minds on 27 March. There is also the plan by Wan Azizah, leader of the People’s Justice Party and Anwar’s wife, to convene national consensus talks. There is clearly a need for close coordination to avoid competing initiatives. Significantly, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has not formally joined the anti-Najib alliance, although some of its leaders had supported Mahathir.
So if Mahathir and his citizens’ movement can maintain their current momentum and the opposition recovers from its disunity, UMNO and BN could be in deep trouble in the next election, which is to be called by 2018. Should that happen, pressure would mount leading to two possible outcomes. The first may trigger a nation-wide awakening that could transform into an anti-Najib groundswell. The second is to push UMNO into the excruciating position of having to decide whose survival is more critical — Najib’s or UMNO’s? In that event, a pre-emptive move for a leadership change may become too tempting in order to avoid impending electoral defeat.
And, if this trajectory holds, UMNO may be forced to explore two other options: vote Najib out, or craft unconventional strategies — such as allowing Najib to step down voluntarily. Face-saving compromises and ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions should not be ruled out, given the wide-ranging repercussions of potential political instability.
Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
This article was recently published in East Asia Forum.