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Malaysia in transition

Anwar's comeback will test Mahathir's promise to step down

Malaysia's PM-designate expected to win by-election as new tensions simmer

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, holds the hand of his former rival and protege Anwar Ibrahim in a show of support during a political rally in Port Dickson on Oct. 8.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's vague promise to hand over power has come under focus with his designated successor Anwar Ibrahim set to return to parliament as soon as next week.

Anwar's comeback was part of a "road map" agreed to by both but it raises, again, the thorny question of whether, and when, Mahathir would actually step down.

Both have put up a show of mutual support despite their once complicated and antagonistic relationship. "I hope we can work together," the 93-year-old Mahathir told a political rally recently, throwing his weight behind Anwar's bid for a seat in parliament's lower house in a by-election due Saturday.

Such a show of unity was unthinkable until a year ago when they were brought together by a mutual goal to oust former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused by both of having squirreled away millions of state funds.

The rivalry between Mahathir and Anwar began at the height of the Asian financial crisis two decades ago. Mahathir, in his first stint as leader, had his then deputy and protege Anwar arrested and later charged with corruption and sodomy.

"Yes, I fought against him but now I accept that he is the best man to lead Malaysia," the 71-year-old Anwar told the same rally, referring to Mahathir.

Anwar is widely expected to win the by-election on the tailwind of the popularity enjoyed by the Mahathir-led ruling coalition, Alliance of Hope, that won the May 9 election and triggered the first change of government for Malaysia. The parliament is set to convene its second sitting on Monday, paving the way for an elected Anwar to be sworn in.

Both men struck a deal months before the May 9 poll for Mahathir to take the helm temporarily if their party were to win. At the time, Anwar was incarcerated on another sodomy charge brought by the Najib administration that he said was politically trumped up. Anwar received a royal pardon after the election as part of the agreement with Mahathir.

Mahathir had publicly said he would step down in "two or three years." Anwar told the Nikkei Asian Review in an August interview that no deadline had been agreed and he wanted to give Mahathir the "latitude" to lead.

But people close to Mahathir's Malaysian United Indigenous Party do not concur. They see Anwar as a man in a hurry to replace Mahathir.

"He is impatient," said an aide to Mahathir, referring to Anwar, pointing to the fact that the by-election was engineered in less than six months after the May victory. The aide also suggested Mahathir would want to stay as long as he could.

After he regained the seat of power, Mahathir had resolved to restore Malaysia to becoming the high-growth economy it was before the Asian financial crisis. Malaysia, the prime minister told an investor forum on Tuesday, had veered from that growth path and chalked up massive debts because of the previous government.

"The country will grow and grow to become yet another tiger," said Mahathir, referring to the term "Asian Tiger" that was used in the 1990s to describe Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan that were becoming rapidly industrialized.

But analysts see problems ahead. "Anwar's return to parliament will slowly increase the pressure on Mahathir to set out a more specific timeline for handing over power," said Peter Mumford of Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.

A member of Anwar's People's Justice Party said his reelection will also push him up the hierarchy within the ruling coalition. Anwar currently holds the title of "de facto leader," while his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is president. Mahathir is chairman of the coalition.

As a lawmaker, Anwar will replace his wife as president of the coalition and deputy prime minister of the government, allowing him to serve under Mahathir once again.

Such an arrangement is "very likely," according to Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Penang Institute, a think tank. Otherwise, Anwar could be relegated to becoming a backbencher in parliament.

And while it is legitimate for backbenchers in western parliaments to criticize their party's frontbench, "this is exactly what Anwar cannot be perceived as doing," said Wong.

"Malaysians have no stomach for round two of 1998," he added, referring to the year Mahathir ousted Anwar due to differences in running the country.

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