In one of the greatest political resurrections of modern times, the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came out of retirement to be returned to power as the world’s oldest premier after riding a wave of popular anger over the alleged corruption of the incumbent, Najib Razak.
The election saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – dominated by Najib’s sectarian party, the United Malays National Organisation – swept from office in the first win for the opposition since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and its local ally, Parti Warisan Sabah, won 121 seats in the 222-seat federal parliament while BN secured 79, down from 133 five years ago (itself the worst BN performance until then). Najib had initially refused to concede defeat, though he eventually acknowledged ‘the verdict delivered by the people’. However, allegations emerged from Sabah state that Najib and the BN were offering $6m to Warisan MPs to switch sides.
It is an extraordinary comeback for Mahathir, who for 22 years was an ‘unabashedly and increasingly authoritarian leader’, according to the Financial Times, accused of ‘emasculating the courts and constitutional monarchs, and of crackdowns on the free press and political opponents’. But there were nevertheless euphoric scenes after the shock victory – most Malaysians, perhaps seduced by fond memories of the economic boom under Mahathir, seemed to prefer an autocratic nonagenarian who fostered crony capitalism to his utterly kleptocratic heir. One voter summed up Malaysians’ ambivalent attitude towards the former leader: ‘We have been waiting for this for the past 60 years,’ he told the Guardian. ‘This is a miracle for us. And even though I was not a fan of Mahathir, I think he was the only one who could have brought this victory.’
Scarcely less astonishing was the reconciliation of Mahathir with the first of several hand-picked successors whom he later turned against: Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 when he condemned his former mentor for ‘the use of massive public funds to rescue the failed businesses of [Mahathir’s] children and cronies’. Anwar was further punished with being sentenced to 15 years in prison on trumped-up charges of sodomy, spending six years in solitary confinement and banned from seeing his young family by the vengeful Mahathir (whose spite extended to cutting off the water and power in the official residence of the deputy PM and his young family immediately after sacking him). Released in 2004, Anwar formed a new multi-racial opposition party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and won the popular vote against Mahathir’s successor, Najib, in 2013. He was then jailed again by Najib on the same bogus charges. ‘If the 2013 elections had been free and fair, we would have won and I would not be in jail,’ Anwar told the Guardian.
In 2000, Anwar had called Mahathir ‘a coward who will not seek responsibility for his own evil … Mahathir’s lust for power is insatiable’. Yet earlier this year the imprisoned opposition leader became reconciled with Mahathir, despite his children urging him not to meet ‘this man who made their life hell’. Days after May’s election Anwar was freed, with a royal pardon granted for the ‘miscarriage of justice’. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife and leader of PKR while he was in jail, is now the deputy prime minister, keeping an eye on Mahathir while her husband maintains a more wary distance, aware that he is just one of three successors to have been attacked and undermined by the supposedly retired Mahathir (who also did his utmost to oust Abdullah Badawi in 2006 and succeeded three years later). ‘Many believe he is simply unable to relinquish power,’ the FT said.
Mahathir’s vindictiveness against his former protégés and other dissidents, allegations of corruption under his own authoritarian rule, plus some frankly insane and racist beliefs, raise questions about his judgment, and therefore the stability of his new coalition government. For instance, he is still touting conspiracy theories about how the 9/11 attacks were a ‘false flag’ operation by the US and/or Israeli governments and has ‘no problem with being described as antisemitic’, the FT reported. Anwar told the Guardian that Mahathir had not apologised for his cruelty towards him. ‘Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?’ asked the Economist.
Meanwhile, the new government promptly reopened inquiries into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. As covered in Commonwealth Update in 2015, ‘at least’ $3.5bn (Bloomberg and the Economist put it at $4.2bn and $4.5bn) was stolen from the state-owned investment company and spent on expensive property, jewellery, art and other luxuries, with $731m allegedly transferred to Najib’s personal accounts, according to the New York Times. 1MDB ‘proved better at borrowing – it accumulated $12bn in debt – than at luring large-scale investment’, Bloomberg said. The Najib government had secretly been paying 7bn ringgit (£1.3bn) to service 1MDB’s interest payments, the Straits Times reported. Najib, who founded 1MDB, has always denied any wrongdoing.
The former prime minister was summoned for questioning by Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency, Al Jazeera reported, and police said they had seized RM114m (£21m), including jewellery, watches and more than 400 luxury handbags from a dozen properties linked to Najib, who was barred from leaving the country. In one apartment, 35 bags were found stuffed with cash in 26 currencies, Reuters said. The state company is now being investigated by 10 countries over allegations of embezzlement and money-laundering. In his first statement as finance minister, Lim Guan Eng said the Najib government had lied to parliament about the nation’s debt, which has now reached 1 trillion ringgit (£130bn), the Straits Times reported. The new PH government certainly has its work cut out.