Mahathir challenges his successor
Mahathir challenges his successor
Connie Levett, Bangkok
MALAYSIA’S old warhorse Mahathir Mohamad has struck a damaging blow to his former protege and current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, asking the ruling party loyalists to choose between them.
The 81-year-old Dr Mahathir has publicly stated he made a mistake in anointing Mr Badawi as his successor and criticised the style and substance of his leadership. The attack is unprecedented in Malaysian political history, according to Shahrir Samad, a member of the Supreme Council of the ruling United Malays National Organisation. “Former prime ministers have criticised incumbents before, but not to this extent. He is forcing people to choose.”
UMNO is the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional coalition Government.
There have been months of sniping about Mr Badawi’s handling of the economy, failure to deal with corruption and the cancelling of mega-projects dear to Dr Mahathir’s heart. But behind that, say observers, is an unspoken anger and concern about the dismissal of sodomy charges against Dr Mahathir’s former
deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in 2004, and a new court case that could open the way for a civil suit against Dr Mahathir.
“The court case is definitely a factor. He hasn’t said it but Mahathir thinks Abdullah Badawi miscalculated by not keeping Anwar in jail,” a Kuala Lumpur-based diplomat said. “With Anwar out, he is airing quite a lot of dirty laundry.”
It has been apparent for some time that Dr Mahathir, who ruled supreme in Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, has been unhappy with Mr Badawi. This week, the situation intensified into a potential political crisis.
In a direct challenge to the Government, Dr Mahathir has announced he will stand as a divisional delegate for Kubang Pasu at the annual UMNO conference in November.
“I will not reveal now what I’m going to talk about at the general assembly. You will have to wait until that moment to find out,” Dr Mahathir reportedly told supporters.
Najib Razak, Deputy Prime Minister and the man Dr Mahathir now says should have replaced him, told reporters: “For someone who has reached the top-most level of the party as president and prime minister and who has received the highest honour, to come down as a normal delegate is something that can be interpreted in many ways. Many feel that it is not appropriate for Dr Mahathir to do this.”
Steve Gan, chief editor of Malaysiakini, an influential independent political website, said Dr Mahathir was not getting the coverage he felt he deserved. He believes the state-controlled media, once his greatest ally, now muffles his voice.
Mr Badawi also has media issues. The spread of new media means the Government no longer has a monopoly on “the truth”. Malaysiakini, said Gan, gets 100,000 unique visitors a day. “It’s not that there is support for Mahathir, but there is growing dissatisfaction with broken promises (by Badawi) on tackling corruption, reforming the police force,” he said.
Speaking at the conference will give Dr Mahathir an opportunity to be heard uncensored. “He is very confident in his arguments, an excellent debater and Abdullah is not up to that mark,” Gan said.
“This thing has been building up but I was surprised by the intensity of the fall-out between the two,” Gan said. The problem for Mr Badawi is it has now reached a level of acrimony where neither side can easily step back without losing face.
“I thought it was sniping, but now it is beginning to build up into a potential crisis. (Dr Mahathir) is a shrewd politician, he outlasts everyone. For him the means justify the end,” Gan said.
While Dr Mahathir complains about the poor coverage he now receives, Dr Anwar’s voice is silenced. “He has been blacked out by the (state-owned) media, you don’t see him at all,” Gan said. “It’s difficult for him to have an impact when you are non-existent in the media.”
Where Dr Anwar has gained some traction is in the courts. In 2004, the federal court dismissed the sodomy case against him as “flawed” and released him after six years in prison. At the time he said he would not pursue action against his accusers.
Then in 2005, Dr Mahathir told a human rights seminar he had done the right thing in exposing Dr Anwar because “it would be unimaginable or unthinkable to have a gay prime minister in Malaysia” whose largely Muslim population considers sodomy a criminal offence.
Dr Anwar demanded an apology and 100 million ringgit in damages. Not surprisingly, Dr Mahathir stood by his claim that Dr Anwar was a sodomite and the case is now in the civil courts. No date has been set.
However, a second case will be heard this November that could have implications for the civil suit. Sukma Darmawan, who was found guilty of being sodomised by Dr Anwar, has been given a retrial.
One political observer who did not want to be named sees Dr Mahathir’s aggressive attacks as “purely self defence”. “This goes back to the courts allowing the Sukma case to be retried,” he said. “He blames Badawi for going soft on the judiciary.”
The consensus is that Mr Badawi did not interfere in the justice system, rather he gave it the space to make independent decisions. For Dr Mahathir, who once ruled with an iron grip, this new vulnerability is unsettling.
“More and more evidence is emerging through the courts of cronyism and Mahathir being a part of that,” the diplomat said.
Where will it all end? For now, political pundits say
Mr Badawi is safe, but the infighting will damage his leadership and Dr Mahathir will not let up.
A general election is not due until 2009 but the Government is expected to go early to cut out Dr Anwar, who is barred from standing until late 2008. A weak victory could bring forward challengers, including Mr Najib.
“UMNO is unhappy to have to choose but it does not seem salvageable,” the diplomat said. “(Dr Mahathir) will not be quiet and will not give up, there is a shamelessness to it.”
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