Malaysia ’s elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad insists it is now more important than ever for the opposition to unite ahead of the coming election, but as he extends a new olive branch to long-time political foe Anwar Ibrahim, voters may be once bitten twice shy.
Mahathir, 97, became prime minister for a second time in 2018 after staging a dramatic reunion with Anwar to oust the Umno-led Barisan Nasional government, electrifying an electorate angered over cost-of-living worries and corruption scandals linked to politicians including then-leader Najib Razak .
But a political coup triggered the collapse of their Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition within two years, with some critics blaming instability within the party on Mahathir’s alleged reluctance to yield power to Anwar.
As Mahathir once again urges Anwar to work together ahead of the November 19 election, observers say his calls are unlikely to inspire any confidence.
“At this stage, a Mahathir-Anwar partnership looks unlikely. That ship has sailed,” Adib Zalkapli, Malaysia director for political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, told This Week In Asia.
Mahathir last week said there was a need to rediscover the same spirit from four years ago that saw him and Anwar set aside decades of animosity to unseat the corruption-tainted Umno party.
“To me, personal feelings, arrogance, ego, self-importance … have no place in a struggle, especially when dealing with religion, race and country,” Mahathir said in a video message posted on social media on Friday (Oct 21).
During Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, he had sacked Anwar as his deputy and thrown him into jail on charges of corruption and sodomy, prompting the latter to create the Reformasi movement and start the People’s Justice Party (PKR) party.
But even Anwar appears to have had enough of his former mentor’s overtures, saying “tens of meetings” that were held before this ended up with no decision on cooperation.
“Now is not the time for personal arrangements and the like. I am more keen on seeing an election based on what we can offer the people and the capabilities of the leadership in restoring the economy and the dignity of our nation,” Anwar said during a campaign stop in Penang on Sunday.
The events that unfolded in the 2020 political coup, dubbed the Sheraton Move, also weigh heavily on the parties in PH as many supporters felt their trust was betrayed not only by Mahathir but also by the very parties they had voted into power, according to Adib.
Even if Mahathir has since formed a new party, Pejuang, to contest this election, Adib said such an alliance would only alienate PH’s core supporters and could trigger a low turnout among opposition voters unhappy with such an arrangement.
In his call for opposition unity, Mahathir said the political calculations in the 2018 polls were clear – if the opposition did not unite and contest on the same platform, Najib and his lackeys would continue to be in power and lead the nation into a downward spiral.
“That is why I was ready to meet Anwar, because I believed he also thought the same as me. If I have to make the first move, I will do it,” Mahathir said in his video message.
“People say I am shameless … what is important is that we achieved the objective of stopping the advances of those who were destroying the country.”
Of the more than 1,500 people responding to Mahathir’s video on his Facebook page, one commenter posted a one-word reply that summed up the distrust in the former leader.
“Poyo,” read the reply by Ochiek Jaam, the Malay colloquial term for lame.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.