KUALA LUMPUR -- The contest between two men hoping to succeed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has devolved into a mudslinging campaign, with police arresting an aide of anointed heir Anwar Ibrahim for allegedly leaking a sex tape smearing the opponent.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar and current Economic Minister Azmin Ali are both considered front-runners to succeed Malaysia's longtime leader. In the latest development, Anwar's aide was arrested by Thursday on suspicion of disseminating a video showing a man who resembles Azmin having sex with another man.
While Anwar's political standing is certain to suffer from his aide's arrest, Azmin, a close aid to Mahathier, will also be left contending with the fallout in a Muslim country where homosexuality has not gained acceptance, clouding the prospects for a power handover.
Anwar denied any involvement in the video's release Wednesday and said Azmin should resign if authorities confirm that he was in the video.
In response, Azmin said that Anwar "must look at the man in the mirror." Anwar himself was sentenced in 2000 to nine years in prison for sodomy.
The controversial video was posted on social media several times last month. A man quickly came forward claiming to have been the other individual in the video, and was later detained. Police are working to determine who was behind the leak.
Azmin has categorically denied he was in the video. "This is nothing but a nefarious plot to assassinate my reputation and character in an attempt to destroy my political career," he said.
Now the succession contest is in disarray. Mahathir has suggested Anwar as his successor several times since becoming prime minister a second time in May 2018. Still, Mahathir fired Anwar as vice prime minister during his first stint, and many political insiders doubt whether the 94-year-old leader will stick to the plan. For one thing, the arrest of Anwar's secretary could hurt his standing in the ruling party.
Meanwhile, Azmin had been expanding his clout as a key aide to Mahathir and he is now rumored to be his preferred successor. But even if he proves he was not the man in the video, his image has already taken a blow in the eyes of the Malaysian public.
In addition to the two rivals, Mahathir's son has also indicated an interest in taking the country's reins. "I am open and it really depends on the leadership at that time on where I'm suited best," Mukhriz Mahathir, chief minister of the northern Kedah state, told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview. The premier is sure to face fierce pushback within the ruling party if he names his son as successor.
The video has undermined the ruling coalition's assertion that it is different from the scandal-plagued administration of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, said Peter Mumford, practice head for Southeast and South Asia at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. Najib has been accused of funneling vast amounts of money out of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
"The video scandal undermines the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition's claims to have heralded a new dawn of cleaner politics for Malaysia following its surprise electoral victory last May," said Mumford.
The scandal could also set back the government's economic policies, which have become a growing concern as the trade war between China and the U.S. weighs on Malaysia.