By Noah Lee and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
It wouldn’t be Malaysian politics without backbiting, political intrigue and conspiracy theories abounding in the run-up to national polls.
As campaigning for the Nov. 19 general election kicked off this past weekend, Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s elder statesman and former prime minister, floated a theory.
Rival party leaders Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Anwar Ibrahim have a secret pact to form a government after the polls, the 97-year-old “Dr. M” alleged.
Anwar, his former protégé, had signed on to be PM in exchange for dropping criminal charges against Zahid, the UMNO chief who is standing trial for corruption, Mahathir said during a campaign stop in Sabah.
“As we all know, Anwar Ibrahim wants to be prime minister. Hence, we have information that Anwar has discussed with Zahid Hamidi, the leader of Barisan Nasional, that they can work together, and between them, Anwar will become prime minister,” said Mahathir.
He has been Malaysia’s longest-serving PM, and joined forces with Anwar in leading the opposition to a stunning victory in the 2018 polls.
Anwar heads the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition and Zahid presides over the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the Barisan Nasional coalition, the oldest political bloc in Malaysia.
“But why will Anwar be the prime minister and not Zahid? Anwar will … drop the charges against Zahid Hamidi and several other [Barisan] leaders, and all their court cases will be settled. For that reason, Zahid was willing to give the spot to Anwar on the condition that Anwar freed Zahid,” Mahathir added.
Mahathir also said that once Anwar became PM he would engineer a royal pardon for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, an UMNO leader who is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption in a case stemming from the 1MDB financial scandal.
Both Zahid and Anwar pooh-poohed Mahathir’s claims, while some analysts described them as unrealistic.
Last week, the head of another ethnic-Malay-centric coalition made similar allegations about Anwar.
For the first time, four coalitions will be competing for power on election day. The coalitions are Barisan, Pakatan, Perikatan Nasional, and the unofficial coalition Gerakan Tanah Air, led by the indefatigable Mahathir.
The Malaysian parliament has a total of 222 seats and based on the country’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, any party that has the support of at least 112 members of parliament can form a government.
Most analysts are calling the election in favor of a Malay-centric party, and the largest such party or coalition is the UMNO-led Barisan. But if the Bersatu-led Perikatan, another Malay-centric bloc, were to eat into Barisan’s votes, the latter may need to look for alliance partners to form a coalition government.
‘Father of diversions’
For his part, UMNO President Zahid dismissed Mahathir’s claims as a smokescreen. Zahid said they were meant to move attention away from a looming wipeout that Mahathir’s Gerakan coalition and Pejuang party will suffer in the elections.
“Diversion of the issue is always his top priority and he is known as the father of diversions of all issues,” Zahid told reporters at Bagan Datuk in Perak state on Monday.
“Mahathir knows that his party is going to lose terribly and that his popularity is going downwards, so he tries to divert. This was proven when his party fielded candidates in all election seats in Johor, and all of them lost and lost their deposits,” Zahid added.
Anwar, meanwhile, denied Mahathir’s claims and joked that the former PM “would get a fever” if he became prime minister.
“I will never work or negotiate with people who have court cases and who are corrupt. I will fight them,” he said at an event in Seberang Jaya on Sunday.
Anwar was referring to Zahid’s corruption case.
Zahid faces 47 criminal charges in a case related to the alleged misappropriation of a total of 52.25 million ringgit (U.S. $11.42 million) from his family-owned foundation, which was set up to help the economically disadvantaged. In that trial, Zahid is accused of using the funds to make credit card and car payments.
‘Anything can happen’
Meanwhile, two political analysts believe that the Pakatan and Barisan coalitions could never work together as long as the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is a largely ethnic Chinese party, is part of Pakatan.
Barisan has historically been suspicious of DAP, which it sees as an ethnic Chinese centric party that puts the interests of Chinese front and center, to the detriment of Malaysia’s ethnic Malay majority.
“I think the grassroots of Pakatan and DAP themselves will reject the decision,” Awang Azman Awang Pawi. political analyst from the University of Malaya, told BenarNews.
Another analyst said that Mahathir meant to mislead the public through his comments.
“Based on what has happened on the ground, I don’t see any indication of what he [Mahathir] has claimed,” Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow of the Malaysian Council of Professors, told BenarNews.
But Mahathir himself has proven that politics is the art of the possible. After all, he managed to get Anwar, whom he expelled from his party, to join him in a coalition to unleash a historic defeat against UMNO in the last general election.
“Anything can happen after the election results are out,” Jeniri said.
“Anything can happen, for example an alliance between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan, but this will happen without DAP.”