The pharaoh returns?

Mahathir Mohamed retired from politics on 31 October 2003 when he was forced to step down by his party (United Malayan National Organisation/UMNO) who feared that his continued presence was undermining the party and the coalition (Barisan Nasional/BN) that it leads. Malaysians fed-up with Mahathirism and its attendant problems, whole heartedly gave their mandate to “Mr. Clean”, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who took over from Mahathir, in the 2004 general elections.

Mahathir, breaking with convention and courtesy began to attack Badawi almost from day one as Badawi, forced by circumstance, began to undo Mahathir’s pet projects. Mahathir was particularly venomous to the Badawi family, especially Khairy Jamaluddin, Badawi’s son-in-law. Badawi however was clearly becoming a pawn of his son-in-law, who used this special relationship to further his own political and personal fortunes.

A weak Badawi Administration squandered the mandate given by the people and failed to deliver on campaign promises to root out corruption and promote transparency and accountability. He failed miserably at the 2008 General Election, where for the first time since 1969, the BN had failed to secure the psychological two-third majority which it had used wantonly to change the constitution in its favour in addition to loosing four state governments to the opposition. The opposition was further boosted with the return of Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader to Parliament after a decade. Under pressure internally from his party and the coalition, Mahathir’s constant attacks and Najib’s impatience, Badawi stepped down on April 1, 2009.

It is unclear how influential Mahathir was in Badawi’s downfall. Mahathir had openly admitted that he had made a mistake in selecting Badawi as his successor and constantly attacked Badawi’s policies, eventually calling for Badawi’s resignation. To this effect, he even resigned in protest from UMNO, calling UMNO members to demand that Badawi resign. Mahathir returned to UMNO once again on 6 April 2009, after Badawi stepped down as Prime Minister of Malaysia and Najib took over.

Najib ascent has brought Mahathir to the forefront once again. Mahathir’s influence is once again on the rise and Malaysians fear the return of Mahathirism, a form of personalised authoritarianism that Malaysians had rejected. Malaysians are further concerned that having rejected BN-type politics in the 2008 general election, Mahathir’s return will nullify all the gains to date.

Najib has calculated that it’s best to have Mahathir on his side. He has had to return several favours to Mahathir, who has acted swiftly. His son, Mukhriz Mahathir, although having lost the contest for the UMNO Youth Chief, was given the influential post Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry. Mahathir’s influence on Najib is all the more telling, as his son Mukhriz was chosen ahead of Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of Badawi, who is the UMNO Youth Chief. This is the first time in UMNO history where the UMNO Youth Chief does not hold an influential ministerial post. Mahathir is also once again electrifying the grassroots with his rhetoric as he is now officially invited to attend UMNO events.

Najib, UMNO and BN are facing unprecedented challenges and his actions thus far have been dubious, indicating that he is not sure how to address these issues. What worries most Malaysians is that without clear directions, Najib runs the risk of falling prey to Mahathir’s growing influence.