Commentary: The bittersweet return of Anwar Ibrahim to Malaysian politics

Commentary: The bittersweet return of Anwar Ibrahim to Malaysian politics

Prime Minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim might win the by-election for the Port Dickson seat come Oct 13, but he will have to contest with bigger issues, says one observer.

Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and politician Anwar Ibrahim, leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Jun 1, 2018.  (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

TASMANIA: Malaysians love acronyms and when you use “DSAI” in Malaysia, it can only refer to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, widely seen as the Malaysian Prime Minister-in-waiting.

Anwar will take a huge step to becoming Malaysia’s PM on Oct 13, when he is expected to win the Port Dickson by-election and become a Member of Parliament (MP).

This leads to an interesting question that has been the subject of much speculation in the Kuala Lumpur political class for the past few months: How will DSAI and incumbent Mahathir Mohamad co-exist in parliament? 

Perhaps, more importantly, how will they deal with the power transition from Mahathir to Anwar, widely reported to be in the later half of 2020?

THE POLITICAL DYNAMICS

The power transfer is not as straightforward as many think. There are political calculations working in the background.

First, there is some unease among the political class that the way Anwar is getting into parliament might begin a bad precedent.

The Port Dickson by-election will be held merely five months after the recent general election. The incumbent MP, a retired navy Rear-Admiral who comes from the minority Indian population, gave up his post and will not be eligible to stand in the next general election.

Second, the popular opinion is that Anwar should have asked one of his two family members to give up their seat instead.

Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, and daughter, Nurul Izzah, are both MPs. Wan Azizah is also Malaysia’s deputy PM. With Anwar back in parliament in October, some said it sure looks like the Anwar political dynasty is up and running.

Anwar Ibrahim, wife Wan Azizah and daughter Nurul Izzah
Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim poses with his wife and daughter during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Third, there have been persistent rumours that many in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition do not want Anwar to be the next PM. They prefer Anwar to play the role of elder statesman and help the PH government outside of parliament.

Part of the fear comes from their belief that Anwar will be a political liability among the rural Malay voters in the next general election.

The argument goes like this: The PH alliance under Anwar was unable to dislodge the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) in the past two general elections (in 2008 and 2013) until Mahathir came along.

Mahathir’s weapon was his ability to win one-third of the rural Malay vote which allowed the entire PH coalition to defeat the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the BN. Prior to Mahathir, the opposition tried and failed to make any headway among the conservative rural Malay voters.

READ: Mahathir’s 100 days in office and the extended honeymoon period in Malaysia, a commentary

There are many who think Anwar will not be able to deliver the rural Malay vote based on his past track record. If PH does not keep the rural Malay vote, there is a real possibility that PH may be a one-term government.

Over the past month, there was speculation making the rounds in Kuala Lumpur that even Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin, his closest political advisor, think that Anwar is not the man who can ensure PH’s win in the next general election.

Though all three leaders have come out to debunk the rumours, they reflect an underbelly of sentiment that Anwar simply lacks the substance to rule. Anwar is “all politics” and “no substance”, (i.e., Anwar is good at political games but is sufficiently capable to run the actual machinery of government), some have said.

Anwar’s ascendancy has become a key issue in the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s internal elections. 

Rafizi Ramli, running for PKR’s deputy presidency post, openly claimed that he was running for the position to help Anwar clinch the pinnacle position of PM, and that if he loses the deputy presidency’s post to Azmin Ali, Minister for Economic Affairs and former Selangor chief minister, Anwar may not succeed Mahathir as PM - as Mahathir is said to be secretly backing Azmin to derail Anwar’s plans.

Rafizi Ramli Jun 1 2018
Rafizi Ramli speaks to reporters, Jun 1, 2018. (Photo: Bernama)

Fourth, the balance of power in PH is coming under strain. Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), only has 13 MPs. Both DAP and PKR have more than 40 MPs each. Yet Bersatu has the lion’s share of key government positions.

The most glaring example is the state of Perak. Bersatu only won a single seat in the May elections and its only elected representative was given the position of Menteri Besar (Chief Minister).

There is pressure on Mahathir to increase the political strength of Bersatu if he steps down in 2020. The most obvious way is to entice defections from UMNO.

Thus far five UMNO MPs have left the party, the most recent being Mustapa Mohamed and Anifah Aman, both heavyweights in UMNO. Mustapa was previously Minister for International Trade and Industry while Anifah was Malaysia’s Foreign Minister.

There is every reason to think that more UMNO MPs and state assemblymen will leave UMNO in the coming months. UMNO leaders have operated in an ecosystem of unlimited government resources for so long, it is unthinkable that they can thrive as opposition members with limited resources. 

If Bersatu can double its MPs by the middle of next year, it will strengthen Mahathir’s hand but may complicate the power balance in PH.

READ: 'It should be me, not you': Anwar on how he felt watching Mahathir being sworn in as PM

ONE STEP AT A TIME

It is almost certain that Anwar will stay on the backbench once he is elected on Oct 13. He cannot join the Cabinet unless his wife agrees to give up the seat of deputy PM to him. Longstanding Malaysian political traditions do not allow for two or more members of a single family to serve in the Cabinet.

But even as number two to Mahathir, Anwar will also be less free to express his views and has less political space to manoeuvre. He will also be forced to go along with Mahathir’s policies.

Anwar was originally jailed 20 years ago by then-premier Mahathir Mohamad, on what supporters
Anwar Ibrahim waves to his supporters and journalists after leaving a hospital in Kuala Lumpur on May 16, 2018. (Photo: AFP/MOHD RASFAN)

For Anwar’ supporters, it makes a lot of sense that Anwar takes over as Deputy PM as this will ensure a smooth transition in 2020. Perhaps more importantly, it will neutralise any attempts by a third candidate to place themselves as a successor to Mahathir.

Under Malaysia’s political system, if anything happens to Mahathir, the incumbent Deputy PM takes over automatically. Mahathir is 93 years old so in practical terms, Anwar is politically safest if he is officially the number two in the system.

As to the core question of how will Mahathir and Anwar co-exist, the answer is very simple. Both Mahathir and Anwar are political animals who do what they must to achieve desired political ends. It is worth bearing in mind the words of Otto von Bismarck: 

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

Professor James Chin is director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania and senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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