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Commentary: Mahathir holds all the keys to Malaysia’s political succession

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has three options on how to proceed with political succession after the eruption of a sex video scandal allegedly involving Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, says James Chin.

Commentary: Mahathir holds all the keys to Malaysia’s political succession

A combination photo shows Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar Ibrahim and Minister of Economic Affairs Azmin Ali in Malaysia on March 28, 2019, May 17, 2018 and September 5, 2018. (File photo: REUTERS)

HOBART: The sex video scandal allegedly involving Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali has reignited debates about power transition in Malaysia.

Prior to last May’s historic regime change, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition made it clear that if PH wins, Dr Mahathir will be prime minister for two years before he hands over power to Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

READ: Transition of power to Malaysian prime minister is 'quite settled': Anwar Ibrahim


The political deal was remarkably simple – Dr Mahathir will capture the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) votes, especially the rural Malay votes, which will ensure PH’s electoral victory, while Mr Anwar will finally get his chance to be Malaysia’s prime minister, something he has been trying to achieve since the late 1970s.

In fact, Mr Anwar was deputy prime minster to Dr Mahathir but was sacked in 1998 after both fell out over how to deal with the Asian Financial Crisis and amid rumours he was planning to topple Dr Mahathir. Mr Anwar was thereafter charged with corruption and sodomy and jailed.

Despite all this, Mr Anwar remains a major political figure in Malaysia and his alliance with Dr Mahathir is his last chance to prime minister.


But there is a big problem. The big problem is that there are many in Malaysia who think Mr Anwar should not be prime minister and are actively working to stop him from assuming the top position.

READ: The bittersweet return of Anwar Ibrahim to Malaysian politics, a commentary

In addition to spreading rumours about Mr Anwar’s private life, they are telling anyone who is willing to hear them that Mr Anwar is unfit to be prime minster for the simple reason that Mr Anwar does not know how to run the economy and is not capable of putting Malaysia back on track when it comes to economic progress and development.

After all, Mr Anwar was a strong opponent of Dr Mahathir’s decision to peg the ringgit at a fixed rate to the US dollar. The IMF was forced to admit years later that fixing the exchange rate was the right policy prescription despite its initial vehement opposition.

File photo of the Malaysia Ringgit (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Another persistent rumour in Kuala Lumpur is that Dr Mahathir’s closest advisors are actively promoting Azmin Ali as the alternative to Mr Anwar. For them, it makes sense. Mr Azmin has shown he is capable of running the country based on his track record as Selangor’s chief minister and as deputy president of PKR.

If Mr Azmin rises as a successor, Dr Mahathir can claim he kept to his promise of handing over power to PKR, just not to Mr Anwar. Dr Mahathir likes to repeat that he stepped down voluntarily in 2003 and he will do so again.


Yet, the sex video scandal has changed the political equation completely. Dr Mahathir has three options available.

The first option is also the most obvious, and that is to simply ignore the video and denounce it altogether. Thus far, Dr Mahathir has gone down this path - he has said he believes the video to be fake. He takes the neutral position that he is waiting for the police to tell him if the video is real or not, and is not actively involved or bothered by the case.

Dr Mahathir and his advisors like this option as it gives them maximum flexibility as the sex video story unfolds. By playing a wait-and-see game, Dr Mahathir will also get to see what other political fall-outs might unfold.

Mr Anwar had to cancel a trip to Australia because of the sex video and the PKR leadership is divided over whether they should sack Haziq Abdullah Abdul Aziz.

READ: Sex videos a weapon of choice in Malaysian politics that distract from other issues, a commentary

Oddly, Mr Haziq had confessed on Facebook and given media interviews that he was the other party in the video and yet PKR seems reluctant to sack him.

There are also persistent rumours if PKR takes action against Mr Azmin, he will form a new political party with at least 20 MPs, thus weakening PKR’s position as the party with the biggest number of MPs in the PH coalition.

Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali. (File photo: Bernama)

Mr Anwar and Mr Azmin had been close. Mr Azmin was his personal secretary when Mr Anwar was deputy prime minister. Yet their ties have soured over last year’s internal PKR elections when Mr Anwar backed Rafizi Ramli over Mr Azmin, now made more awkward with this video.


The second option for Dr Mahathir is to sack Mr Azmin for his alleged involvement in the sex video. Mr Anwar’s supporters like this option as it will remove Mr Azmin from the power transition game, leaving Mr Anwar as the only candidate to be Dr Mahathir’s replacement.

After all, Mr Azmin has been entrusted with a hefty portfolio as Economic Affairs Minister, overseeing agencies that used to come under the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry.

But this may be a wrong assumption. If Dr Mahathir removes Mr Azmin for this reason, then Mr Anwar must be ruled out too given that Malaysian courts had found him guilty of sodomy.

The only person to politically benefit from the move to disqualify both Mr Azmin and Mr Anwar is Mukhriz Mahathir. 

Mahathir’s number two in his party Bersatu, Muhyiddin Yassin, has health issues, is recovering from cancer, and is therefore a less likely contender. Mr Mukhriz who is number three, thus becomes the obvious successor if Mr Azmin and Mr Anwar are both out.

Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir. (File photo: Bernama)


The third option is for Dr Mahathir to stay longer. This appears to be the preferred option for most people in PH as it ensures two very important things.

First, of course, is continuity. Both the Malaysian domestic polity and the international community know what Dr Mahathir stands for and his brand of politics. They may not like him, but he is a known quantity.

Second, there is increasing fear among PH strategists that only Dr Mahathir is politically strong enough to fight any resurgence of UMNO/PAS in the next general election. Without Dr Mahathir, PH may lose and end up as a one-term government.

READ: Has Malaysia become more divided under Pakatan Harapan? A commentary

This is not a far-fetched scenario as this was exactly what happened to the Democratic Party of Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party lost power after decades in government in 2009 but regained its footing three years later and control of government in 2012. The Democratic Party of Japan which won power in 2009 was a one-term wonder.

Many in PH are confident that with Dr Mahathir at the helm, PH will be in a strong position to win a re-election. In the worst-case scenario, if anything were to happen to Dr Mahathir, PH can count on sympathy votes to win an election.

Going forward, the most likely thing is for Dr Mahathir to adopt a wait-and-see approach and wait for further political fall-out from the sex video scandal. The ensuing public embarrassment has significantly weakened Mr Anwar, Mr Azmin and PKR, and strengthened Dr Mahathir’s political hand.

After the sex video scandal, voices calling for clarity on when Dr Mahathir will hand over, whether two or three years, and to whom, have softened their tone.

READ: Mahathir’s ‘Game of Thrones’ grand plan is almost complete, a commentary

If there is going to be any movement, it will be a Cabinet reshuffle. Many in the inner circles in Kuala Lumpur think it is time for a Cabinet reshuffle as some ministers and deputy ministers are simply not performing. Who gets in and who is moved out will indicate what Mahathir is thinking.

No matter how you see Malaysian politics, there is little doubt Dr Mahathir is in absolute control. He really is the shrewd “great pharaoh” of Malaysia, a nickname some keen observers have given him.

Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

Source: CNA/sl


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