[Analytics] Anwar Ibrahim’s rough road to the future Malaysia’s premiership

Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad (R) talks to Anwar Ibrahim during Anwar Ibrahim by-election campaign in Port Dickson, Malaysia on October 8, 2018. Adli Ghazali / Anadolu Agency. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Recent developments in Malaysian politics have been fast and furious, from the inking of a landmark agreement between the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Islamist PAS party, to Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali’s appearance at a Bersatu event, which set tongues wagging domestically and abroad, and lastly to Anwar Ibrahim’s declaration that he will be the next prime minister of Malaysia come May 2020. Maa Zhi Hong specially for the Asia Times.

Barring any mishaps, it is quite clear to all that Anwar will indeed be the next prime minister. What is less clear, though, is the longevity of his premiership. Can he lead the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to victory at the next election without Mahathir Mohamad? How will he handle Mahathir? These questions are yet to be answered.

All signs point to a tough situation for Anwar once he takes over as prime minister.

First, Anwar will face a resurgent UMNO-PAS opposition that threatens to eat into his ruling coalition’s already shaky Malay support – PH won only 30% of the Malay vote in the May 2018 poll. The Malay community is already apprehensive of its status in post-Najib Razak Malaysia and in an attempt to smooth the feelings of the community, the government backpedaled on many of its key promises, which also dismayed many of its original core supporters.

How to achieve a fine balance between assuring Malays of their status in the country and satisfying the expectations of core supporters of the government will be one of the trickiest and most important things for Anwar to navigate.

Second, Anwar needs to be tactful in dealing with his estranged deputy Azmin Ali.

The likelihood of Azmin joining the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), which is Mahathir’s political party, in the event of an Anwar premiership remains high.

Joining Bersatu has become the most viable route for Azmin to ensure the long-term viability of his political career under an Anwar government.

With recent bad blood between the two, if Azmin stays in Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), he risks getting booted out of the cabinet once Anwar becomes prime minister. But if he joins Bersatu, Anwar’s hands will be tied. He will not be able to act against Azmin as the latter would be seen as a member of Mahathir’s gang. A move against Azmin would be seen as a move against Mahathir.

The only reason Azmin has had the guts to skip party meetings since November 2018 is that he has been protected by Mahathir, who has made efforts to groom him since winning the May 2018 poll.

Azmin and Mahathir share a long relationship dating back to the 1980s, and it is Mahathir who introduced Azmin to Anwar.

Azmin is widely distrusted by many in his own political party for being too close to Mahathir.

Since the release of several sex videos in July that left Azmin fighting for his political life, he was widely seen to have been abandoned by his political party when Anwar told a reporter that Azmin should resign if the videos are found to be authentic.

Mahathir’s firm support for Azmin has enabled the latter to survive the ongoing scandal relatively unscathed.

Azmin will continue to stay close to Mahathir for his political survival. Many Azmin loyalists like Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin owe their current cabinet positions to Mahathir.

Anwar must manage this carefully with all his wisdom and experience he can muster, while maintaining his authority will be his most immediate challenge. Failure to manage this appropriately will lead to immediate defection to Bersatu, which will certainly end the PKR’s status as the largest political party in the Malaysian Parliament. This will only serve to undermine his authority as prime minister.

Of the component parties of the ruling PH government, Bersatu is the smallest, and the only one to be an exclusive Malay-only party. It was this party that helped to drain sufficient Malay support from the then-ruling Barisan Nasional government to enable the landmark victory of the PH coalition.

Anwar will need Bersatu to counter the resurgence of the UMNO-PAS opposition, as racial overtones in the country are expected to get stronger in the near future. Bersatu is the only party that can help Anwar reach out to the many unconverted conservative Malay voters who remain suspicious of the government.

While empowering Bersatu would help strengthen the ruling coalition as a whole, it is a double-edged sword for Anwar. A stronger Bersatu would have the right to demand a bigger share of the cabinet posts.

Anwar needs to ensure the interests of all parties in the PH coalition are taken care of to ensure its stability. Most important, Anwar needs to ensure that his relationship with Mahathir and senior Bersatu leadership stays amicable.

Mahathir has tied Anwar’s hands by appointing a slew of competent, clean but anti-Anwar individuals to key positions in the civil service. One example is the appointment of Anwar arch-foe Latheefa Beebi Koya as the new chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Anwar will need the support of Mahathir to ensure a smooth premiership journey. After all, Mahathir has a habit of turning against his handpicked successors. He turned against Anwar in 1998 when the latter was his deputy, and there is nothing to stop him from doing so a second time. Hence managing Mahathir will be one of the most important tasks for Anwar.

The upcoming journey for Anwar will not be easy, and it will be the veteran politician’s biggest test.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore and he has written for TODAY, Asia Times, SCMP, Nikkel Asian Review and lives in Singapore. He has been closely following developments in the region around his country since the age of 11, so he can enable his readers to understand the issues pertaining to the region from the locals’ viewpoint.

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