Mahathir’s Succession Games

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Dennis Ignatius on handover of PM post.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s assurances in the recent Financial Times interview that he would definitely hand power to Anwar Ibrahim is a masterpiece in political subterfuge. He gives with one hand and takes away with the other, confirms and then appears to backtrack in the same breath. Far from settling the succession issue, Mahathir remains as elusive as ever on his plans for the future.

After indicating that he would hand power to Anwar, for example, he added that choosing a successor was a difficult task especially since he had gotten it wrong a number of times before. It gives the impression that he wants to ensure that the right man takes over from him. Taken together with other statements he has made – that he cannot guarantee that whoever succeeds him will do a good job, for one – suggests that he has not yet made up his mind about Anwar, never mind that this is something that PH has already agreed upon.

And, while he says he will step down before the next election (2023), he insists there is no agreed time frame for him to do so. At the same time, he keeps saying that he has to stay until he has “solved the problems” the nation faces. What exactly all those “problems” are were left unsaid. In other words, we can expect no clarity at least for now as to when he would step down or who will actually succeed him.

When he says he will step down before the next election, he is saying the obvious. Of course, he will have to step down before the next election as it is unlikely that either PKR or DAP will endorse him now that their preferred candidate – Anwar Ibrahim – is available and ready to take the lead.

More importantly, the voters themselves are unlikely to rally around him to the extent that they did prior to GE14. Already, many feel betrayed by his administration’s failure to deliver on its election promises.

Over and over again, his administration has backtracked on key reforms. Where before they were strident in their calls to abolish repressive laws like Sosma, they now talk of merely amending such laws. In the meantime, human rights defenders and critics are being increasingly harassed and intimidated.

When they were in opposition, they complained about how BN bribed voters during elections with handouts; now they are doing exactly the same thing and have the audacity to get indignant when they are called out on it.

When they came to office, they immediately cancelled the Najib-era King Salman Centre for International Peace amidst concerns about its Wahhabi orientation; now they apparently want to “review if there was a justification for it to continue”.

Even their much-ballyhooed anti-corruption drive has thus far focused only on Najib Razak and his cronies while others viewed as close to the present government appear to live a charmed existence. Evidently, political perfidy is a bottomless pit.

Mahathir is, of course, right to be concerned about wanting to ensure that the right man succeeds him. However, given that he has not got it right thus far – his last preferred candidate, Najib, being a particularly appalling choice – the wise thing for him to do would be to disqualify himself from the process.

In any case, in a constitutional democracy like ours, the prime minister doesn’t get to anoint his own successor. The constitution mandates that the member of parliament who is most likely to enjoy the confidence of the house becomes prime minister. At this point of time, that means Anwar. Let Anwar demonstrate that he enjoys the support of the house; if not let the house find someone else. That is the way our system of parliamentary democracy is supposed to work.

Rather than play God, Mahathir should just allow the system to work in selecting a successor.

As well, his argument that he needs to stay longer because only he can solve the nation’s problems is bound to strike many as Trump-like. It is true that his administration has done much and has helped stabilise the country’s financial situation. It is, however, hardly the stuff of legends.

In the meantime, some of his “new” initiatives – another national car project, for example – are simply a repeat of the failed policies of the past. As well, his administration has failed, thus far, to initiate the kind of sweeping economic reforms that most economists insist are urgently needed.

To argue that he is the only one who can solve our nation’s problems is to argue for an indefinite stay. If, after decades of independence, only one person is good enough to rule, we are truly damned.

The global economy is heading into uncertain times because of the US-China trade dispute. Growth rates, including our own, are projected to fall. What we need, if we are to weather the coming storm, is a new vision, a new strategy and a new team to carry us forward for the next 5-10 years. The sooner a new team is in place the better.

There is no doubt that Mahathir contributed significantly to the success of PH in the last election. He was instrumental in uniting the opposition and helping to bring down Umno-BN after decades in power and giving Malaysia a second chance. And for that, if nothing else, he will always have the gratitude and respect of the nation.

Anwar is going to need time to consolidate his position, put in place his team and make his mark to position himself to lead PH into the next election. The whole future of PH and the reform agenda will depend on it. The greatest thing that Mahathir can now do for the nation is to help consolidate PH’s future by empowering Anwar as soon as possible. Anwar may not be the ideal successor, but he is certainly better than all the other pretenders to the PH throne. – FMT

The views expressed are those of the author.