KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is seen as the strongest candidate to challenge the rule of current premier Najib Razak in the country’s upcoming election, say observers and analysts.
Mahathir, 92, was Malaysia’s longest-serving leader when he stepped down in 2003 after 22 years as head of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government.
He is now expected to contest the next general election, which must be called by August 2018, under the opposition banner of Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Over the weekend, the PH coalition named him as the candidate for the post of interim prime minister should they win the 14th general election.
“I think he will stand for elections,” said Kadir Jaasin, a close associate of Mahathir, told Channel NewsAsia. “He has shown every indication of leading the opposition to topple the BN.”
Kadir is also a member of the Supreme Leadership Council of Mahathir’s new party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), which was launched earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) Wan Saiful Wan Jan believes Mahathir personally does not want to run, but will do so to swing votes to the opposition.
“I have asked this question to Mahathir personally,” said Wan Saiful. “My understanding is that he prefers not to stand because he believes that a new generation should take over.
“But the decision is not completely in his hands, because he is willing to let the PH leadership decide. He understands that he still has influence and may be able to swing votes towards Harapan by contesting.”
Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party has hinted elections would be held “days after Chinese New Year” in 2018.
MAHATHIR SEEN AS STRONGEST CONTENDER TO TAKE ON NAJIB
According to PPBM’s Kadir, there are many calls from the public and within the opposition coalition for Mahathir to stand for elections.
“I think the situation is such that they (people) think nobody else could challenge Najib except for Mahathir,” Kadir said.
“For more than a year, in his (Mahathir) own way, he has become the rallying point for the opposition.”
PPBM’s youth chief, Syed Sadiq Abdul Rahman, is one of those calling for Mahathir to contest.
“We want to see Mahathir contesting one last time to symbolise his final struggle, an attempt to correct past mistakes and liberate Malaysia once and for all from UMNO's hegemony,” he said.
Mahathir is expected to contest either in Langkawi in his home state of Kedah or in Putrajaya, the administrative capital which he built and which now is Najib’s seat of power.
Politicians and analysts believe Mahathir stands a good chance of winning if he contests in Langakwi.
“He has a real possibility of winning in Langkawi,” said IDEAS’ Wan Saiful. “Voters there still remember him as the person who helped the island grow. And he is generally popular in Kedah too.
“But Putrajaya will be difficult.”
Pacific Research Center principal adviser Oh Ei Sun said Mahathir will lose badly if he stood in Putrajaya.
“Mahathir will lose by a huge margin, as civil servants are understandably dependent on the government of the day,” said Oh.
A Kedah-born graphics designer working in Kuala Lumpur told Channel NewsAsia Mahathir will win if he stood for election in Langkawi as many people still liked him.
“Many people in Kedah still like him, including the young people,” he said, declining to be named. “I like him too. So do my parents. If he stands in Langkawi, he will win.”
An ethnic Indian driver working in Kuala Lumpur was equally supportive of Mahathir.
“He is the founder of modern Malaysia. When I travel outside of Malaysia, people respect us because of Mahathir,” said the 28-year-old, who also declined to be named.
“He built us the Twin Towers; so many things he built. He put us on the global map.
“I will vote for him. Yes, there were problems and corruption during his time but it is nothing compared to what we are seeing now.”
Despite the passage of time and his controversies, which include jailing his opponents, Mahathir remains admired as he developed Malaysia to where it is today.
“Mahathir was prime minister for two decades and he is seen as being responsible for developing this country to what it is today. He will always be admired by many,” said IDEAS’ Wan Saiful.
“STUCK IN THE PAST”
Mahathir was nominated following discussions over the weekend by opposition parties that also saw jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, named as candidate for deputy prime minister.
But IDEAS’ Wan Saiful is not enthusiastic with the proposals to make Mahathir interim Prime Minister, saying it makes the opposition appear they were “stuck in the past”.
“I think this is a cop-out by Pakatan Harapan,” he said. “It indicates they have not been able to move on from the past.
“The more logical contenders for the top post from the PH are only two people, namely Muhyiddin Yassin or Azmin Ali.”
Muhyiddin is a former deputy prime minister and president of Mahathir’s PPBM, while Azmin Ali is the current chief minister of Selangor and deputy president of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR).
“I suspect the reason is Anwar does not approve of the two men,” Wan Saiful said. “Hence the compromise is Mahathir.”
A straw poll by local news portal The Malaysian Insight indicated the majority of social media users were “positive” towards the proposal of Mahathir leading the opposition charge.
The straw poll showed 600 (55.8 per cent) voted “Yes”, while 475 (44.2 per cent) said “No”.
Wan Saiful also believes Mahathir was named to court the Malay vote.
“I can understand if the opposition want to use Mahathir as a strategy to win the Malay votes. Because Mahathir might just be able to do that for PH.”
PPBM’s Syed Saddiq agrees.
“Mahathir is UMNO's biggest enemy as he can swing the Malay electorate - which are UMNO's fortresses,” he said.
“We have successfully opened up party branches in UMNO strongholds, areas where no other opposition party has made inroads before.”
STILL FULL OF ENERGY
At his age, Mahathir still stands upright, walks unaided and has been campaigning tirelessly to oust prime minister Najib over allegations of corruption In the state-owned investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
While his voice may sometimes sound frail, Mahathir is neither doddering nor slow with his thoughts; his wit and trademark sacrcasm remain intact.
“To those who argue that Mahathir is too weak and frail to contest, I suggest they follow him on the campaign trail,” said Syed Saddiq.
“I am his research officer and youth liaison officer, and I see him enter office every day before 9am and leave not earlier than 5.30pm. Almost every night he has either a function or a ceramah (political talk) to attend.”
Syed Saddiq added that Mahathir also goes horse riding and cycling during the weekends.
“Even I, as a 24-year-old, can't muster his energy levels,” he said.