Malaysian politicos wouldn’t normally lose much sleep over a by-election in the sleepy ward of Semenyih, home to just 90,000 people. And yet, all eyes in Putrajaya are trained on this vote, now being billed as an acid test of 93-year-old prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his government.
A crushing defeat in another recent run-off has raised fresh questions about Mahathir, who returned to power in a blaze of publicity last May but has failed to deliver on many pledges. Meanwhile, predecessor Najib Razak, is shrugging off the corruption scandal that saw him lose power and is busy engineering an unexpected political resurrection.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Mahathir, who previously served as PM for 23 years, pitched himself as the consummate reformist on the campaign trail last year. Having broken away from the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in protest at Najib’s alleged embezzlement from state wealth fund 1MDB, Mahathir and his new Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition not only promised to get the money back but vowed to remake the country entirely.
Cracks beginning to emerge?
A crusade against corruption was just part of this process. Mahathir said he would shore up the struggling Malaysian economy and implement a plank of 10 social policies within 100 days. These included a raise in the minimum wage, the introduction of universal healthcare, and the abolition of a tax on goods and services (GST) which Mahathir insisted, despite economists’ warnings to the contrary, would bring the cost of living down.
This populist platform helped Mahathir bring about Malaysia’s first transition of power since independence in 1957, at the helm of a new, multi-ethnic alliance. But the promised blitz of change has fizzled out in less than a year. The 100-day makeover was almost immediately delayed. When the policies were finally introduced, they only exacerbated the growing sense of disappointment. The minimum wage hike was far too small to appease unions, and the old GST has simply been replaced by a new, slightly less stringent levy, which has left the country more reliant on oil rents. The economy may have improved, but the cost of living has continued climbing upward.
His honeymoon period over, Mahathir has openly admitted he promised more than he could deliver, which has done little to dampen criticism from the media. To compound matters, speculation is rife of a rift within PH, with rival parties jockeying over the planned leadership transition between Mahathir and his deputy, former protégé and longtime political rival Anwar Ibrahim.
Tensions over that transition are acutely sensitive for Mahathir, given his complicated relationship with his second-in-command. Anwar was once his heir apparent in the 1990s, but Mahathir ousted the young reformer after he deigned to criticize the government’s policies. The elder statesman then instigated Anwar’s imprisonment on widely criticized sodomy charges.
Freeing Anwar and promising him eventual leadership of PH was another one of Mahathir’s election pledges. But Mahathir is still in power, and there’s no fixed timeframe for the transition to take place. Anwar maintains a united front in public, but his frequent public speeches have done little to douse rumors that he is itching for a leadership push.
Barisan National’s comeback
This sense of turbulence has led to a flurry of protests against the policies of Mahathir’s government. Some of the protesters want Anwar to take over, but others want Najib’s old Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to come back. Many of the protests are coming from the dominant Malay community, spurred by claims the government is seeking to undermine their rights.
The ethnic diversity of Mahathir’s coalition has gone from strength to Achilles’ heel. Mahathir’s opponents claim a party dominated by ethnic Chinese lawmakers has too much influence within PH, and many in the Malay majority suspect Mahathir is ready to remove the traditional Malay privileges he himself, once a hardline Malay nationalist, helped put into place.
UMNO has tapped into this sentiment, and Najib has made some shrewd maneuvers since losing the premiership. While Mahathir’s government has saddled him, his wife, and other political allies with dozens of charges related to allegations of corruption, Najib has enjoyed success in reinventing his image, tapping into grassroots unrest against the current government. Long delays in the start of legal proceedings has afforded Najib valuable time to undertake this political rebranding, even though Mahathir has claimed to have an “almost perfect case” against his political rival.
Far from seeking anonymity, Najib has rebranded himself the ‘thief of hearts’ and become a constant critic of the government on social media, even publishing the phone numbers of Mahathir’s finance and economic ministers after their high-profile breakdown in communications. His old wardrobe, replete with smart suits, has been replaced by casual streetwear – including a t-shirt bearing the provocative slogan “ashamed about what, boss?”
Stump speeches at the supermarket
The strategy is widely interpreted as the start to a future political comeback, and it seems to be working. In the recent Cameron Highlands by-election, Najib’s intervention was cited as a key factor in BN’s victory. His speeches, focusing on poverty, were greeted with raucous acclaim by supporters.
The focus has now shifted to Semenyih, where Najib has already been mobbed at a local supermarket by a large and enthusiastic crowd. UMNO has renewed its campaign alliance with Malaysia’s Islamist Party, and its leaders have urged voters to turn the election into a referendum on Mahathir’s regime. Judging by the local flash mobs protesting the government’s broken promises on highway tolls, PH faces a fierce struggle to win this de facto plebscite. Indeed, UMNO has already accused PH of vote buying to shore up its tenuous position in the district.
If Mahathir’s coalition manages a win in Semenyih, it could help paper over the emerging cracks in his government and stave off dissent. But as a lifelong politician, Mahathir knows as well as anyone that a few damaging losses can be enough to open the floodgates.
*Hariette Darling is originally from London, has a BA in Economics and currently resides in Singapore while working as a freelance environmental risk researcher for a local consultancy and runs a blog on Daily Kos