KUALA LUMPUR – For a party long associated with the name Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Umno has wasted no time in distancing itself from the country’s longest running prime minister-turned-Opposition leader.

In Kedah, take a walk past the many roads and lorongs in the Malay heartland and it would be difficult to miss or even dismiss the weight of what his name carries.

Dr Mahathir’s footprint is almost everywhere here, reminders of his era as PM are permanently etched there in the form of museums and galleries. It should therefore come as no surprise that political parties from both sides of the divide are using his name to set the battle lines in Kedah for the 14th general election.

While Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties seem eager to leverage on the name and legacy of their former arch rival to garner Malay voter support in the state, Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) are doing the exact opposite.

Umno-BN: Closing the door on Dr M

For Merbok Umno division chief Datuk Tajul Urus Mat Zain, the party’s state chapter has the task of setting the record straight on BN’s victory in Kedah over PAS in the 2013 general election.

The Kedah state executive councillor believes that there is a popular misconception that the state was won due to the “Dr Mahathir” factor and because at the time the latter’s son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, was being proffered as BN’s candidate for state mentri besar ― which he eventually did become after GE13.

“The reason why BN won Kedah in the last general election is not because of Mukhriz, but because of Umno’s team under Bashah and (Datuk Seri) Mahadzir Khalid’s leadership.

“At the time, we never announced that Mukhriz would be MB. He was not a factor for our victory; he just came along for the ride,” Tajul Urus told Malay Mail Online.

“But after he became MB, there were so many problems, so many weaknesses,” said the Umno leader who served as state executive councillor during Mukhriz’s stint as Kedah MB.

In 2016, Mukhriz was removed and replaced by the current MB Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah, ostensibly due to both his and Dr Mahathir’s growing criticisms against Umno’s leadership.

On the state level, however, is another narrative: one of Mukhriz’s alleged failings as a MB, and how he had not been attentive enough in carrying out his duties.

“Between Bashah and Mukhriz, Bashah is a grassroots leader, one with no controversies, lives a simple lifestyle and is what people call approachable. He is a good administrator.

“Mukhriz is great in the sense that he is the son of a former prime minister, but other than that, he failed,” Tajul Urus said.

And closing the chapter on Dr Mahathir and his family in Kedah may have been made easier after he and Mukhriz formed rival Malay nationalist party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

“I think the nostalgia is gone,” Tajul Urus said of Dr Mahathir’s leadership and legacy.

“People are angry, upset. They want a strong, stable government.”

PPBM, Pakatan Harapan ― a better choice?

If Umno faces the challenge of moving forward in Kedah without Dr Mahathir, PPBM and by extension PH, face an entirely different task of convincing voters to vote for a new Malay party and Opposition coalition in a state primarily made up of Umno and PAS supporters.

But PPBM believes that with Mukhriz as the face of PH in the state and with Dr Mahathir in the background, the coalition will attract the support needed to win come GE14.

“PPBM, PKR, Amanah and DAP are working together in the state. Since the formalisation of PH in Kedah, Mukhriz has been reaffirmed as the leader in Kedah.

“At this stage, the PH leadership in Kedah is already being led by Mukhriz, even Dr Mahathir sits under Mukhriz in the committee,” PPBM Jerai division chief and supreme council member Akhramsyah Sanusi told Malay Mail Online.

But he admitted that an issue which is taking some time to be resolved is for Opposition parties to come to a compromise with regards to seat negotiations.

“Right now, the main question is which party is positioned to win these seats… and also incumbency is sacrosanct, for instance if Alor Star is held by a PKR representative, it will remain PKR’s seat,” Akhramsyah added.

Kedah PKR chief Dr Azman Ismail believes that Mukhriz’s alliance with PH will help the coalition win votes from areas like Jerlun, Langkawi and Kubang Pasu.

“[The] Mahathir factor is very strong in his home state,” the Kuala Kedah MP told Malay Mail Online.

Another factor which could favour PH is the rumours surrounding the possible defection of several PAS lawmakers, including Pokok Sena MP Datuk Mahfuz Omar.

“There are a number of PAS reps very friendly to PH. I think they will cross over once Parliament is dissolved. It will be very difficult for PAS to come back to power alone,” Azman said.

BN currently has 20 state lawmakers in the 36-seat Kedah legislative assembly. Both PH and PAS have eight each.

Second chance for PAS?

But for PAS, the need to win back Kedah in the next general election is crucial to show critics and naysayers that the party still wields fierce support from its traditional vote base despite cutting ties with other Opposition parties.

A win for Kedah PAS will also put a stop to growing disillusionment among some of its lawmakers with regards to the Islamist party’s political future and quash rumours of leaders quitting the party.

“PAS’s aim for this election is to form a government with at least 19 seats. The question of forming a coalition government with other parties is another matter which will have to wait until the real election,” Kedah PAS commissioner Ahmad Fakhruddin Syeikh Fakhrurazi told Malay Mail Online.

He said that for PAS, the only worthy opponent in the state has always been Umno-BN and not any other party.

“PAS’s fight has always been against Umno-BN, and Pakatan’s existence splits our vote and gives BN a lifeline,” Ahmad Fakhruddin said.

But a few Kedah PAS leaders like Mahfuz believe that it will be difficult for PAS to work with PH come GE14, as many of their supporters would consider the move an act of betrayal.

“I had hoped that PAS would go back and join PH but judging from the statements made by PAS leaders, I do not see this happening.

“But even if PAS joined PH, there will be unrest within the party because PAS had already announced it was cutting ties with PKR and DAP. PAS supporters will attack their leaders if they go back on their word,” the Pokok Sena MP told Malay Mail Online.

Mahfuz said that the reason why he had been criticising his own party was because he felt that PAS had not been prioritising the fight to remove BN from power.

“I am still PAS. I love my party but I love the people and Malaysia more… so far PAS has not taken any action against me. I have not done anything wrong,” the ex-PAS information chief insisted.

Political analyst Oh Ei Sun believes that Umno will likely team up with PAS in Kedah if both parties fail to win enough seats to form a new state government on their own.

“Although Umno and PAS may have some ‘friendly contest’, if either of them can win outright, then that party may form a government by itself.

“But if neither has majority, then both can form a coalition government versus PH,” the adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said.

– Malay Mail