Malaysia's Mahathir Mulls Risks, Rewards of Postponed Power Transfer

    18 January 2020

    Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appears unlikely to surrender his leadership as promised to government coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim.

    Mahathir was returned to office in elections in 2018. Several times since he has again said he would serve only one to two years before passing power to Anwar.

    Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Dec. 19, 2019.
    Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Dec. 19, 2019.

    That idea raised fears that there may be a dispute over the office that could divide the coalition and cost it the next election.

    Longtime politicians, Mahathir and Anwar fought in the late 1990s. They rejoined to defeat the country's long-ruling and corrupt Barisan Nasional coalition in May 2018. The two men promised to clean up the government, decrease living costs and support minority rights. Ninety-four year old Mahathir also promised to give Anwar the office after two years.

    But Mahathir, who was Prime Minister for 22 years until 2003, seems to be enjoying his second time in office. It appears he may have changed his mind about leaving the position.

    In an interview with Reuters last month, he said again he would give his office to Anwar. However, at a meeting in Doha a few days later, he said he would not commit to Anwar. He added he would think about giving up his office only after he chairs the next meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November.

    Anwar has so far accepted all Mahathir's statements. He says the change will happen at the right time. But there are fears that a refusal by Mahathir could split their coalition, the Pakatan Harapan, said Ben Bland. He is the director of the Southeast Asia Project at Australia's Lowy Institute.

    "They end up attacking each other...damaging their prospects at the next election," he told VOA.

    No one is surprised by the unpredictability of the situation. Many thought Anwar would replace Mahathir in the 1990s, when the younger man served as finance minister, but they fought. Anwar was removed from office in 1998. He was found guilty of sex crimes in 1998, which he denies, saying the case against him was brought for political reasons. Anwar spent the next six years in jail.

    'No normal relationship of trust'

    Their more recent effort to join forces against their enemy, the Barisan Nasional coalition, was successful.

    However, "it's clear they still don't have a normal relationship of trust," Bland said. He added that many in the coalition believe that only Anwar has the political strength to lead Pakatan Harapan to a second victory.

    Some experts say Mahathir also fears the loss of importance after he announces he is leaving.

    An announcement at APEC, maybe?

    Some say the APEC summit would make a strong goodbye for a man who has always cared deeply about his international importance.

    "I think APEC is important for him... that is one way for him to cement his foreign policy legacy...he's going to be the only leader to chair APEC twice," said Adib Zalkapli. He is the head of the consulting firm Bower Group Asia.

    As much as Mahathir and his allies may still not trust Anwar, Zalkapli believes that Mahathir knows that a handover must come and that Anwar will need two years as prime minister before the next election, due by mid-2023.

    Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist and professor at Malaysia's Sunway University. He says that Mahathir does really want Anwar to become prime minister, but the longer Anwar waits, the weaker he looks.

    "If Anwar is not strong, it makes the case for Mahathir to stay a bit longer," he said.

    I'm Susan Shand.

    VOA's Zsombor Peter reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    prospects – n. n opportunity for something to happen

    interview - n. a meeting at which people talk to each other in order to ask questions and get information:

    cement – v. to firm up

    legacy – n. something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past