Dennis Ignatius: Will Mahathir and Anwar Unite Again?

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It is a long shot to be sure, but it might be the only shot left for PH.

The intense negotiations within the Pakatan Harapan (PH) leadership to decide upon who will lead the coalition have reached a make-or-break point. Amanah and DAP (together with Mahathir loyalists in PBM) are now firmly in favour of uniting behind Dr Mahathir Mohamad once more with Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy. What’s more, they also seem to have agreed that Mahathir would be the best person to lead them into GE15 should early elections, now a distinct possibility, be called.

Anwar and a number of PKR parliamentarians, however, remain adamant that Mahathir cannot be trusted, and who can blame them. Nevertheless, with his own party still in disarray and bleeding members – thanks to the relentless efforts of Azmin Ali to entice PKR members to abandon Anwar – and his ability to win Malay support increasingly in doubt, it is going to be hard for Anwar to resist the pressure.

If it comes to pass, Mahathir would have pulled off another miracle of sorts – with no political party of his own and with only a handful of MPs in his stable, he has managed to leverage his persona and gravitas to claim the leadership of PH once more.

Supporters of the Mahathir-Anwar proposition, including the DAP, are now going into overdrive to convince Anwar that it is the best option available. They argue that with Mahathir as head, there’s a better chance of tempting a few more MPs to cross over and perhaps even persuading GPS to switch sides. Warisan’s support is also contingent on Mahathir heading the ticket. In the end, it’s a numbers game they point out, and the odds favour Mahathir rather than Anwar.

The same logic they suggest would hold true in the event Muhyiddin triggers an early general election: a Mahathir-Anwar ticket would have a better chance of taking on the combined might of Muhyiddin, Najib and Hadi than a ticket without Mahathir.

Both Mahathir and Anwar have their relative strengths and weaknesses as well as their core supporters; if they work together, so the thinking goes, they can maximise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

Referencing a Merdeka Centre poll taken last November, they point out that Mahathir is still more popular with Malay voters than Anwar with 58% of Malay voters picking Mahathir to lead the country compared to only 13% for Anwar. When it came to non-Malay voters, however, Anwar fared much better.

Whatever it is, there is now a palpable sense of urgency within the PH leadership to close ranks given the alarming situation in the country. They feel that if Muhyiddin is not stopped, and stopped soon, he could do irreparable damage to the nation.

It is by no means an overstatement. Many feel that Muhyiddin’s reckless and intemperate policies – all predicated upon a desire to stay in office no matter the cost – are driving the country to the brink of catastrophe.

The successful prosecution of high-profile corruption cases involving former UMNO politicians is now in doubt. Crony appointments have compromised the integrity of GLCs and statutory bodies. Massive new borrowings (RM35 billion according to the finance minister) to fund pandemic-related recovery programmes will push the nation even further into debt. And the absence of a competent economic team is creating uncertainty.

The Najib factor is also weighing heavily on PH leaders. After rather brilliantly manipulating events, he is now set to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of his GE14 defeat. He is today arguably the most influential Malay leader; he enjoys strong support within UMNO and his grassroots appeal remains intact despite the 1MDB scandal. If he can leverage his influence and power to shake free from the corruption charges against him, there’ll be no stopping him.

In the light of these developments, a compelling case can certainly be made for PH leaders to put aside their differences, stop the blame game and act quickly. It would be nice if there was someone other than Mahathir to lead them but there is none, and they don’t have the luxury of time on their side to wait for a less controversial leader to emerge.

The decision to unite behind Mahathir, according to them, is premised not upon any particular devotion to the man but upon political necessity given the urgency of the situation. Stopping Muhyiddin, they insist, must take precedence over everything else. Such is the gravity of the situation that they have even agreed to put aside discussion on the kind of policies a PH 2.0 administration would pursue; all that, they say must be left to another time.

It’s hard to disagree, of course, with the argument that the situation in the country is dire. The prospect of corrupt former leaders not only shaking off the charges against them but returning to power once more is deeply distressing. No doubt, a not inconsiderable number of Malaysians might well conclude that if Mahathir is the only one who can bring down the PN government then so be it. They may not like him, but the alternatives are worse.

It is a long shot to be sure, but it might be the only shot left for PH. If they can unseat Muhyiddin without triggering early elections, they might get a second chance to set things right; if it ends in fresh elections, all bets are off.

Despite Mahathir’s much-touted ability to bring in the Malay vote, it must be remembered that he fared poorly the last time around with his party winning only 13 of the 52 seats it contested. He also failed to bring in the Malay vote in almost every by-election since. With the UMNO-PAS alliance holding steady, it is unlikely that Mahathir will be able to do better.

Even the non-Malay vote is by no means certain. Many non-Malays are jaded and jilted, disappointed and despondent; they might not even make the effort to vote in another general election given the choices before them.

However this plays out, one thing is certain: many voters have lost faith in their leaders and perhaps even in the future of the country. The system is now so corrupt, the malaise so deep that many are convinced it is beyond repair.

How terrible that after some six decades of nation-building, we have come to this, that the future of the nation now rests in the hands of a clutch of unprincipled and untrustworthy leaders.