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Politics

Malaysia sex video scandal fuels Mahathir succession rumor mill

PM blames 'gutter politics' as favorite minister is caught in power struggle

From left, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali and ruling coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim. (Reuters, AP)

KUALA LUMPUR -- A year after sweeping into power, Malaysia's ruling coalition is embroiled in a sex scandal that has echoes of one that landed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in jail two decades ago.

The controversy erupted on June 11, when sex videos involving two men were shared with journalists on WhatsApp. The caption alleged that one of the men was Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali, a close aide to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Though Mahathir pledged before last year's election that he would ultimately hand the reins of government to Anwar, now the leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, the prime minister has avoided committing to a time frame and Azmin is rumored to be his preferred successor. The scandal has touched off a firestorm of speculation about the authenticity of the videos and the possible political motives for releasing them.

The day after the journalists received the footage, Haziq Abdullah Abdul Aziz, a deputy prime minister's aide, released a video on his Facebook page and claimed he is in the footage with Azmin.

Azmin has categorically denied any involvement with the videos and rebuffed calls to step aside. He filed a complaint with the police against Haziq and urged the authorities to look into who was responsible for spreading the clips. Haziq was arrested on June 14 as he was about to board a flight to Manila from Kuala Lumpur.

But the succession plan for the 93-year-old Mahathir, which had already drawn skepticism, now looks even more uncertain.

The general consensus within Pakatan Harapan is that Mahathir will keep his promise and let Anwar take over. Yet, many observers still harbor doubts due to the bitter history between the two men, coupled with Azmin's rise to prominence.

Mahathir, during his first premiership from 1981 to 2003, groomed Anwar as his successor. In 1998, however, the prime minister sacked his protege over allegations of corruption and sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia. Anwar then spent about six years in prison, before the sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.

Anwar led a campaign against Mahathir from jail and founded the People's Justice Party (PKR), which was headed by his wife and current Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim. The party is now the leading force in Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope; Anwar and Mahathir buried the hatchet before last year's election to oust incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Azmin has suggested the scandal is an attempt at character assassination by some individuals within the PKR. "I am sure that this has a political agenda, done by certain people who intend to halt my progression in the government as well as in politics," he said.

Mahathir -- despite sacking Anwar over similar allegations -- has argued Azmin is a victim of "gutter politics." The prime minister has vouched for his aide's innocence and said there is no need for him to take a leave of absence.

Azmin and Anwar, too, were once close: The former was the latter's private secretary during his stint as deputy prime minister. But after his former boss was jailed, Azmin rose through the ranks. Today he commands strong grassroots support within the PKR -- of which he was been deputy president since 2010 -- and is said to have a frosty relationship with Anwar due to their clashing political aspirations.

The talk that Azmin might get the nod to succeed Mahathir has only underscored the apparent rift.

Anwar has expressed sympathy for Azmin over the scandal but has not directly addressed the claims of PKR sabotage. "I stress that this issue has political elements, therefore it is not appropriate to baselessly accuse anyone of spreading the videos," Anwar said.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the Azmin scandal is unlikely to impact support for Pakatan Harapan, as its supporters tend to be open-minded about private matters. But he sees the affair as a clear sign of PKR infighting.

"We can only say this is obviously the work of those who don't want to see Azmin become prime minister," he said. "PKR's internal struggle has been plain for all to see since almost immediately after the last general election, and which intensified during the party elections" earlier this year.

Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst at Malaysia's University of Science, suggested the scandal holds weight precisely because of the ruling coalition's focus on political and moral integrity, among other reform initiatives.

"If it's an outsider job, he or she will have to work closely with someone within [the party] as well," he said, calling on the police to verify the true origin of the videos.

"Sex misconduct is the easiest [way] to destroy the moral legitimacy of a politician who is seen having good relations with top leaders of the government," the analyst said. "It could also be a conspiracy to discredit someone's reputation and credibility in order to end his political career."

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