LANGKAWI: Dr Mahathir Mohamad lodged his nomination papers in Langkawi on Saturday (Apr 28) to become the Malaysia opposition’s official leading figure in its electoral tussle for power.
In what would have once been an unthinkable moment in the nation’s politics, the 92-year-old former leader stood in front of Pakatan Harapan opposition flag-waving supporters on the tourist island in his home state of Kedah, to confirm his contest in a highly anticipated general election.
And he basked in the glory of the moment ahead of what has already been a bruising campaign, marked by rule changes, legal challenges and a concerted fray with Prime Minister Najib Razak, once his political ally and protege.
While Mr Najib’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is expected to claim victory in the general election due on May 9, after losing the popular vote in Malaysia’s last poll in 2013, the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) six-decade hold on power faces another stern test.
Dr Mahathir’s nomination under the opposition umbrella is a remarkable chapter in a turbulent political career that has spanned seven decades. If successfully elected, it would mark a return to the parliament since the last time he served, as prime minister no less from 1981 to 2003.
Photos of Dr Mahathir were proudly on display in parts of Langkawi, on banners and flags, despite guidelines that ban the use of candidates faces on national election campaign material. As Dr Mahathir is standing for election in Langkawi, it is allowed here.
His fond connections to Langkawi, which he helped transform in the 1980s from a barren backwater to a gem in Malaysia’s tourism industry, could see him successfully elected to a parliamentary seat, which he needs to ascend to interim prime minister.
He has assured opposition supporters that he would hand over the leadership to Anwar Ibrahim, another former foe of Dr Mahathir, who continues to languish in prison over sodomy charges.
On Saturday morning, he entered Langkawi’s district office flanked by hundreds of red and turquoise clad supporters, cheering his name and that of his new political outfit.
He later emerged - to more cheers, and jeers from the crowd directed at BN candidates - and was confirmed as a candidate alongside two rivals.
Langkawi has always been a stronghold for the ruling government - BN has held sway here since the island’s formation as a constituency in 1994. It will take a dose of nostalgia for voters to forsake their connections to UMNO in favour of supporting a longtime icon of the island.
But there is no doubting Dr Mahathir’s popularity here, even among previously staunch government voters.
“This man, he’s a genius,” said one voter, Zulkarnain. He said he had always supported BN, “but the situation has changed”.
Dr Mahathir had a full day of events in Langkawi planned for Saturday, including attending a wedding, meeting ethnic Indian voters and a dialogue with local tourism workers, before he embarks on an expected nationwide blitz to win over voters. It will test his energy and endurance.
Even arriving on the island itself was a challenge, with an official investigation launched into claims his private plane was tampered with before takeoff to prevent or delay his appearance.
Dr Mahathir’s previous 22-year-rule was transformative in many ways for the nation’s economy and industries. But it was also tinged with controversy and division on the back of an unapologetic nationalist and pro-Malay agenda.
This time he will need to rely on the support of non-Malay groups, namely the ethnic Chinese minority which overwhelmingly voted for the opposition in 2013.
Both leaders have turned to domestic populist promises in their attempts to woo the electorate - with Prime Minister Najib offering wage raises to millions of state workers. Dr Mahathir wants to abolish the GST system and find top-level culpability over the 1MDB scandal, the state fund that allegedly mishandled at least US$3.5 billion.
Dr Mahathir’s adversary, BN candidate Nawawi Ahmad will aim to take advantage of the power of the ruling party to persuade voters not to change their allegiances. Against the might of the name Mahathir, he will need to sell the message of the government and the spending promises that come with it.
Langkawi will be a three-way fight, with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) - previously part of the opposition coalition - contesting as a stand-alone entity, along with an independent candidate.