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Malaysia's Mahathir faces critics after being named prime minister candidate

Opposition alliance struggles to form a united front ahead of general election

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's political opposition alliance may have settled on Mahathir Mohammad as its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general election, but it still has to appease an internal revolt and convince voters of its controversial candidate.

The Alliance of Hope, which consists of four main opposition parties, agreed on Sunday for the 92-year-old former prime minister to become the country's leader again if it wins the election, which is expected by August. It also reached a consensus that Mahathir would serve as an interim prime minister while waiting for jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to be released and pardoned to assume the prime minister position. Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar's wife, was named the deputy prime minister candidate.

Anwar, 70, the de facto leader of the People's Justice Party, has been jailed since February 2015 on a sodomy conviction. He is scheduled to be released in June, according to a government statement. Even so, the former deputy prime minister who fell out of favor with Mahathir in the late 1990s will be prohibited from running in elections for five years under the country's laws unless he is granted a royal pardon.

Mahathir is a fierce critic of current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in corruption scandal.

To become prime minister, Mahathir, now chairman of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu, said he will run in the election, which would make him one of the oldest candidates.

An elated Mahathir told the media after the candidacy announcement on Sunday that he will contest in one of three districts: Kubang Pasu, Langkawi or Putrajaya. Mahathir was a member of parliament for Kubang Pasu in his home state of Kedah until 2004, a year after he stepped down as prime minister, a position he held for 22 years.

"I owe and thank Anwar's family for putting behind what had happened to save Malaysia," Mahathir wrote in a post on Facebook. Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy and as the country's finance minister in 1998 over differences in the handling of the Asian financial crisis. In the aftermath of their bitter dispute, Anwar was jailed on corruption and sodomy convictions.

While many hailed Sunday's announcement, saying that Mahathir is the only leader capable of uniting a fractured opposition alliance and launching a challenge to the Najib-led National Front ruling alliance, others questioned the decision.

Even within Anwar's Justice Party, there are leaders who still harbor resentment toward Mahathir for his past treatment of Anwar. "It's cruel for [the Justice Party] to have Mahathir," Zuraidah Kamarudin, the party's women chief was quoted as saying in local media.

Many Malaysians appear to be disenchanted with politicians for their rhetoric rather than concrete policies at dealing with the rising cost of living. In a November survey by the Merdeka Center of Opinion Research, 72% of respondents named economic hardship as their top concern. Political issues that include leadership and corruption garnered just 1%.

"Deeply disappointed. We should give chance to a new face," one person wrote on the Alliance of Hope's Facebook page.

Mahathir's appointment was also subject to ridicule by ruling party supporters. "I thank Alliance of Hope for making it even easier for the National Front to win the upcoming general election," Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a cabinet minister tweeted on Sunday, adding that the opposition alliance's talks of getting younger leaders were mere rhetoric.

Mahathir returned to politics after Najib became ensnared in a financial scandal in 2015 involving sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which has been accused of fraud and money laundering. Najib, the brainchild and head of 1MDB's advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing.

Mahathir formed Bersatu last year and toured the country to garner support with the sole aim of unseating Najib, the only common ground that existed among a fragmented opposition alliance.

Capital Economics, a research company, said Najib's ruling party is "almost certain" to win the election on the tailwind of a strong economy, the weak state of the opposition and widespread gerrymandering.

Even so, Mahathir said the opposition stands a chance as the ruling party is facing "so many" allegations of corruption. And he is also mindful of overstaying his welcome. "I am 92 years old," Mahathir said. "I don't last forever."

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