NAMING Dr Mahathir Mohamad as interim prime minister is an obvious strategy aimed at benefitting Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) foray into rural Malay constituencies, say analysts.
The former prime minister and PKR president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail were named as interim prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively after a two-day coalition retreat in Putrajaya that ended on Saturday.
“If the pact is solely to penetrate rural Malay votes, it might just work,” said James Chin, executive director of Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania .
“Naming Dr Mahathir is a smart move as they are telling the Umno Malay voters, if you vote PH, you get the original Umno, not Najib’s Umno,” Chin said.
BN has long controlled the Malay-dominated Felda settlements, totalling 54 parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia. Dr Mahathir, while he was prime minister for 22 years, was also president of Umno.
PH, led by Bersatu chairman Dr Mahathir, 93, has been attempting to make inroads there by holding ceramah focusing on topics such as corruption and the 1Malaysia Development (1MDB) financial scandal.
Except for PKR, the other PH parties have agreed to the names should the coalition win the general election, which must be held by next August.
But Chin had a caveat when it came to the youth vote.
“The problem is, while Dr Mahathir appeals to Malays over 40, the younger Malays may not buy into him.
“Younger Malays think the most qualified persons in PH are Azmin and Rafizi,” said Chin, referring to Selangor Menteri Besar Mohamed Azmin Ali and Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, who are PKR deputy president and vice-president, respectively.
“If younger malays were asked on this, I think they will not accept Dr Mahathir and Dr Wan Azizah. They want younger people,” Chin added.
Most opposition voters have already settled on Dr Mahathir as a transition figure, Chin added.
“The expectation is that he will be there until Anwar comes out of prison.”
Dr Mahathir was made PH chairman in July. Anwar, meanwhile, has been serving a five-year prison term since February 2015 for sodomy.
While nominating Dr Mahathir as prime minister may be the obvious strategy to win the Malay vote, PH may still have to put up stronger arguments to convince other supporters that he and Wan Azizan remained the best candidates, said Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“PKR members may still feel hurt because of the 1998 Anwar sacking incident and cannot support this recommendation,” he said, referring to the time when Anwar was deputy prime minister and sacked from government by Dr Mahathir.
The sacking, Anwar’s first sodomy conviction and the ensuing Reformasi movement, may still be fresh in the minds of many PKR members, Sivamurugan added.
“Many of those who support Dr Mahathir now were against him then. They (the leadership) may want to justify and rationalise the decision of naming him as interim PM.
“But more interesting will be: Where will Dr Mahathir contest in order to be eligible as PH’s prime minister candidate?” he added.
The age factor, however, should allay fears by Dr Mahathir’s detractors that the former prime minister will cling to power, said Wong Chin Huat, the Penang Institute political studies programme head.
“He is the least divisive choice for politics within PH. Given Dr Mahathir’s age, his interim nature is beyond question,” said Wong.
Due to his prominence in Malaysian politics, Dr Mahathir may be the only figure to draw in support from hardcore Umno and BN supporters.
“While Dr Mahathir’s candidacy may offend some for his adamant defence of his past rule, he also attracts a significant segment of voters who conventionally support Umno and BN only and would not support opposition unless there is some continuity. Dr Mahathir is the continuity in change which may make regime change easier to accept for Malay nationalists, the deep state and the Palace.”
“Ultimately, as in many party states, it will take someone from Umno to defeat Umno.
“BN’s greatest electoral upsets have always been caused by an opposition led by an ex-Umno supremo. In 1990, it was Tengu Razaleigh Hamzah. In 1999, 2008 and 2013, it was Anwar. This time, it has to be Dr Mahathir,” Wong said.
The Azmin-Mukhriz combo
One analyst who disagreed with PH’s move, was Universiti Malaysia Sarawak associate professor and political analyst Jeniri Amir, who said it would bring about negative repercussions to the opposition pact.
“I don’t think this is the right step by PH. (It will be) negative in terms of how the people as a whole perceive PH.
“Dr Mahathir has been up there for 22 years and now they want to put him back in that position again. His track record is not good in terms of good governance. A lot of scandals happened under his regime,” Jeniri said.
“There has to be better candidates than Dr Mahathir, who is now 93. Can’t they propose more dynamic leaders or are they so desperate that they feel that he is the only viable candidate?”
Jeniri proposed Azmin as interim prime minister and Mukhriz as his deputy.
“I think he (Azmin) has done a great job in Selangor. He is a dynamic and forward-looking leader.”
But Chin of the University of Tasmania said that the “Azmin-Mukhriz combo” would not work.
“Azmin only controls 60% of PKR while 40% is under Rafizi. And Mukhriz has no grassroots support. He is there because of Dr Mahathir,” Chin said, noting that Mukhriz resigned as Kedah menteri besar in February 2016 after state Umno leaders declared they had lost confidence in him as the state’s head of government and as state Umno liaison chief.
Jeniri said he expected BN to win the election, but with a reduced majority. As a strategy to win Malay votes, he felt naming Dr Mahathir as interim prime minister was less effective than dealing with bread and butter issues.
“As an incumbent government, BN has the money, the grassroots machinery and they control the media. PH is always talking about 1MDB, which is of less importance to the rural people. It’s still bread and butter issues there.”