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Dr Mahathir, Pakatan’s headache

 | May 18, 2017

Will it have to offer Mahathir as PM candidate to counter the challenge of a PAS-Umno alliance?



The controversy surrounding the Bandar Malaysia project may have reset predictions of a general election this year, but we are nonetheless in the run-up to GE14. It must be called by next May, which gives us a year at the most.

This zeitgeist is very much in evidence in the much discussed alliance between Umno and PAS, a marriage of ethno-nationalist ideology to religious fundamentalist politics that has long been feared by secularists and moderates.

Since the two parties are the largest in Malaysia, their alliance could prove a daunting challenge to the opposition, especially in the rural heartlands, where their rhetoric plays well.

While this alliance could in the long term drive a wedge between Umno and its BN partners, in the short term it could prove beneficial to the establishment because the two will obviously work out a strategy to prevent the splitting of Malay votes between them.

If it comes to fruition, the alliance will definitely give Pakatan Harapan its most severe headache yet. The past two terms of Pakatan rule will be put under referendum, as will its embrace of former PM Mahathir Mohamad.

Zaid Ibrahim has made much of Mahathir’s presence in Pakatan, even going so far as to recommend that the coalition’s goal of capturing Putrajaya be tied to nominating him as its prime ministerial candidate.

The Mahathir factor is not one to be laughed at. Diminished as he may be, his influence persists in large sections of the public. However, this does not mean that many, even among his admirers, would welcome the idea of Mahathir retaking the role of prime minister.

There is the matter of his age. At 91, he seems to have more energy and passion than many younger people, but we are not privy to the details of his health, and few would expect a nonagenarian to perform to the best of his abilities for four to five years in office. That he is a political operator par excellence is an opinion that largely goes unopposed, but perhaps he would do best in his current role as advisor rather than as a claimant to power.

We must also consider Pakatan’s supporters and their opinions of the former PM. Pakatan’s electoral base is built largely of moderates, secularists, left-wing ideologues and working professionals who view Mahathir’s long reign as nothing less than an oppressive autocracy. He may be on the side of what these voters consider “good for right now”, but his track record and his current party’s exclusive focus on Malay-Muslim concerns may remain a bugbear to those who are seeking a clear break from Umno and BN rule.

However, all concerns may at the end of the day boil down to a single purpose – getting elected.As Zaid has said, the combined force of Umno and PAS may be too strong for Pakatan to overcome with its current voter base..

Only one party in Pakatan has the experience of being elected to run a national government, and that is Mahathir’s PPBM, with its ranks full of Umno alumni. While it may be unrealistic to expect Mahathir to stand for election one last time, it may be that only with PPBM at the head and Mahathir pontificating at the helm will Pakatan stave off this latest, and perhaps greatest, threat.

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.

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