KUALA LUMPUR: When two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said he wanted to earn his “work till death” title, he wasn’t joking.
At 97, Mahathir is back again in the election race as the head of a new ethnic Malay alliance that he calls a “movement of the people.” He hopes his bloc could gain enough seats in Saturday’s polls to be a powerbroker. Analysts said it is likely to be a spoiler party in a tight race.
Denounced for being an autocrat during his first 22-year rule until 2003, Mahathir was welcomed as a savior after leading the opposition to oust a long-ruling corruption-stained party in 2018.
He became the world’s oldest leader at 92, and was to hand over power to his rival-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim.
The euphoria was brief as their government fell in 22 months due to infighting. The United Malays National Organization — which had ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957 until its defeat — bounced back to power but the country has since been rocked by continuous political infighting.
In all, Malaysia has had three prime ministers since 2018.
Mahathir, a master tactician, is no stranger to setbacks. He swiftly formed the Pejuang Malay party that now heads a motley bloc known as Gerakan Tanah Air, or Homeland Movement. But it seems an almost impossible mission as it is fielding 116 mostly inexperienced non-political faces including activists, actors and lawyers, and lacks the machinery to reach out to voters.
Mahathir’s star power has also faded and he is up against three established groups including the UMNO-led coalition and Anwar’s Alliance of Hope. Still, his party may further split votes that could tip the balance in a tight race and his return cannot be ruled out.
“Malaysia’s political landscape is so fragmented that even Mahathir’s chances of returning to power, however minuscule it may appear, could not be totally discounted, especially when no single major coalition is likely to win an outright parliamentary majority and a compromise leadership figure may be needed,” said Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Mahathir is the last of a generation of old guards in Southeast Asia, which boomed economically under their authoritarian leadership and came to be known as the “tiger economies.” Indonesia’s Suharto died in 2008 and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in 2015.