Twisted Malaysian politics: Mahathir and Anwar are the strangest of bedfellows!

Monday May 14 2018

Newly-elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right). Left, Jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim

Newly-elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) addressing the media in Kuala Lumpur on May 11, 2018. He said the king had agreed to pardon jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim (left). Anwar, who had been considered Mahathir’s successor, was sacked and treated to the most humiliating accusations by his former boss, who now made sure he went to prison on charges of corruption and sodomy. PHOTO | AFP 

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You surely have heard that a cat has nine lives, but no one told you that some feline politicians also do.

The most recent of these has to be Mahathir Mohamad, the former long-serving Malaysian prime minister who has just got himself back into his old job after a wandering in the political desert during which he must have gotten tired of reading his obituaries.

In one of the most spectacular political comebacks in recent times, Mahathir, 92, has surprised pundits who gave him no chance of ever coming back. But the man is back, and looks like, at least for a few years, he is going to once again be at the helm of that country.

Mahathir, a medical doctor, became a household name in the 1990s when he served as chief of government and helped shape the political and economic contours of a strong Malaysian nation with innovative approaches designed to favour the indigenous Malay population, the Bhumiputra, against the more aggressive Chinese and Indian populations.

Though he had occasion to regret aspects of his flagship policy at some stage, it is thought that his actions catapulted thousands of Bhumiputra to affluence.

Malaysia under him became a world player, and the combined boom of the rubber, palm oil and petroleum industries enhanced his prestige, which was graphically represented by the twin towers of the Petronas building in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. He was also a big influence in the Third World’s search for economic relevance in the world.

But he was an authoritarian ruler, and brooked no dissent, which brought him into direct conflict with his deputy and protégé, Anwar Ibrahim. It was reported then that Anwar was at loggerheads with his boss over what he termed “cronyism” during the Asian economic and financial crisis of the mid-1990s.

Anwar, who had been considered Mahathir’s successor, was sacked and treated to the most humiliating accusations by his former boss, who now made sure he went to prison on charges of corruption and sodomy.

Surprisingly, a couple of years ago, Mahathir decided to come back, this time choosing to join the opposition which was under the leadership of none other than Anwar. His stated reason for seeking a second bite at the cherry was what he perceived as runway corruption of the government of prime minster Najim Razak.

But the choice of Anwar as the man he would work with to oust Razak was the most incomprehensive twist of them all.

How could Mahathir conceivably so dramatically change tack and embrace the man whose name he had so publicly dragged in the mud, accusing him of one of the most despicable crimes in a Muslim society? Anwar had all along denied the allegation that he had sodomised his family’s driver and had sought to tell the world that this was all a political conspiracy hatched by Mahathir to remove him from the political calculus.

Master and protégé

Now Mahathir seems to have discovered a cleaner Anwar, so clean that he has thrown his political lot with him and even promised that he, Mahathir, would serve for only a couple of years as prime minister and then cede the place to his once denigrated protégé.

Is it possible that Anwar was wrongly accused all along by a Mahathir who saw him as becoming too big for his boots? Or, is it a case of the old doctor falling prey to the glitter of sweet power after a decade and half in exile and wanting to do a deal no matter what?

Whatever the case, this is a political comeback to end all political comebacks, a feat that will encourage nonagenarian incumbents to think that they can still hold on to power as they crowd the century. That would make Cameroon’s Paul Biya a most suited candidate to succeed himself, and even prompt Robert Mugabe to have another talk with Emmerson Mnangagwa on the unconstitutional methods used to get rid of him. Our own Yoweri Museveni remains, of course.

One poignant lesson to take away from this episode is, that in politics there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. If Mahathir and Anwar can sleep in the same political bed, show me another couple who would say no. They are probably the strangest bedfellows since political beds were made.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]