The stunning victory of the then 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia’s elections in 2018 was one of the most extraordinary comebacks in global politics. It was also one of the few recent advances for democracy in Asia. The veteran leader’s resignation late last month in a political manoeuvre that uncharacteristically backfired has put under threat the progress of the past two years. The party ousted in 2018 after a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal is making a return — in effect by the back door.
The tale of the nonagenarian leader and his attempts to choose his own successor is Shakespearean in scope. After first entering government in 1964, Mr Mahathir was known as an autocratic prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s. He espoused “Asian values”, rejecting western notions of individual freedoms and adopting a hardline style for the supposed collective good. He feuded with his deputy and heir apparent Anwar Ibrahim — who was eventually jailed for alleged sodomy after the pair disagreed on how to respond to the Asian financial crisis.
What brought Mr Mahathir out of retirement was the alleged embezzlement of $4.5bn from the state development fund 1MDB. He reconciled with Mr Anwar to create a coalition that toppled his former party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno), after 61 years in power, together with the then premier Najib Razak — another onetime protégé of Mr Mahathir. Mr Najib is on trial for allegedly benefiting from the 1MDB scandal to the tune of millions of dollars, which he denies.
Mr Mahathir promised to hand power to Mr Anwar “after one or two years”. He set about recovering funds from 1MDB, and rolling back Chinese influence in Malaysia, renegotiating infrastructure projects he said Beijing had forced on it at inflated prices. But the deadline for a power handover began to slip, raising fears of a renewed conflict with Mr Anwar.
His abrupt resignation two weeks ago followed talks between members of his coalition and opposition parties — some of whom Mr Mahathir said he refused to work with — widely seen as an attempt to sideline Mr Anwar. Instead, Malaysia’s king interviewed all 222 MPs to gauge support and named as premier Muhyiddin Yassin, president of Mr Mahathir’s party but now preparing to lead a government with Umno as the biggest participant.
The return of the former ruling party, especially as a result of opaque backroom deals, has multiple dangers for Malaysia. It risks undermining its historically fragile democratic processes, and the people’s vote of 2018.
It raises questions, too, over whether the new ruling group will continue the legal pursuit of Mr Najib or allow it to lapse and heap all the blame on Goldman Sachs, of which 1MDB was a client. The attorney-general and head of the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission, both central to the 1MDB probes, have stepped down. An Umno-led government might also return to the more overtly pro-ethnic Malay policies and economic nationalism of the past.
It is surely time for Mr Mahathir, now 94, to retire and hand over the reins, and for Malaysia’s political universe to cease revolving around him. Yet any transition must be orderly and transparent. Parliament, whose next sitting has been postponed till May, should be reconvened to allow Mr Muhyiddin’s support to be tested in a confidence vote. The coronavirus crisis makes this no time for early elections. But if parliament and the king cannot resolve the succession more transparently, then as soon as practicable the voice of the Malaysian people should again be heard — as it was so powerfully in 2018.