Malaysia's Muhyiddin emerges as top contender for highest office

Time running out as Malaysia's Anwar aims for top job

Published: 12:31 PM, 20 Nov, 2022
Malaysia's Muhyiddin emerges as top contender for highest office
Caption: File photo.
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Malaysia's Muhyiddin Yassin is a low-profile political insider but after clinching an alliance with an Islamist party he has emerged as a top contender to become the country's next prime minister.

Muhyiddin was Malaysia's shortest-serving leader when he resigned last year from his first stint as premier, but it is now possible for him to get the numbers needed to win Saturday's election, which had no outright winner.

He heads the Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition, which did not win a majority in Saturday's election but is now in talks to form the next government.

Those talks will be helped by Muhyiddin's alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which backs a hardline interpretation of Islamic law.

Following the collapse of a reformist alliance that had swept to power at landmark polls in 2018, Muhyiddin became prime minister for the first time in March 2020,outmanoeuvring his more charismatic rivals Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim.

But the 75-year-old former interior minister quit the top office in August 2021 after only 17 months on the job as bitter infighting engulfed his coalition, and public anger swelled over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

His appointment by Malaysia's king, rather than through the ballot box, led to accusations that he lacked legitimacy, while his parliamentary backing remained razor-thin and he struggled to tame competing factions in his coalition.

Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, said his term had been consumed by simply trying to survive.

- 'Poster boy' -

Muhyiddin's close links to Najib Razak, a political heavyweight now serving a 12-year jail term for corruption, helped his rise to power.

In 1971 he joined the same party as Najib -- the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

He climbed through the ranks to become chief minister of the southern Johor state, a heartland of the country's ethnic Malay Muslim majority, and later served in senior posts in central government.

But he fell out with Najib in 2015 when he was sacked after criticising the multi-billion-dollar scandal linked to state fund 1MDB.

Najib was accused of looting huge sums from 1MDB, allegations that contributed to his coalition's 2018 poll defeat, and led to him being jailed.

Muhyiddin later joined a party set up by Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old elder statesman of Malaysian politics, and helped to oust Najib and UMNO from power.

In a volte-face typical of Malaysia's turbulent politics, he joined hands with UMNO again last year to win enough support to become premier.

But when he refused to intervene in corruption cases against some of the party's MPs, several pulled support, leaving him without a parliamentary majority.

In Saturday's vote, Muhyiddin won by more than 10,000 votes over his nearest rival in his district of Pagoh.

“Muhyiddin remains popular, and this was evident as he was the poster boy for Perikatan Nasional during the election," Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director of the BowerGroupAsia consulting firm.

"His narrative as someone who is against corruption, especially after he was pressured by UMNO leaders aligned with (party president) Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Najib to step down as PM, really struck a chord during the election campaign."

Time running out for Anwar

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's perennial opposition leader, has often been on the cusp of power, but age is catching up with him and the 2022 election could be his last chance to win the top job.

He said Sunday his coalition had enough seats to form the country's next government, which would allow him to become prime minister.

"We have now the majority to form a government," Anwar said at a dawn news conference.

The 75-year-old, whose political career spans four decades and includes two prison stints, is optimistic his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition can finally win.

So long the runner-up of Malaysian politics, Anwar could be running out of time to achieve his long-held but elusive ambition of leading the Southeast Asian nation.

"This is Anwar's last election. If he fails to get the support to become PM, there will be expectations that he should step aside," Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia told AFP.

"If he chooses to stay on, this will only serve to weaken the opposition further and fragment it."

Anwar was a firebrand Muslim youth leader when he was recruited in 1982 into the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main political party that ruled Malaysia for more than 60 years.

His star rose meteorically, as he became finance minister and then deputy prime minister in the early 1990s under former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a youthful counterbalance to the political veteran.

The pairing, considered one of the most dynamic duos in Southeast Asian politics at the time, soon unravelled.

Tensions came to head during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, when they had a bitter falling out over how to handle the debacle.

Some observers say Anwar had been too impatient to become prime minister, slighting his patron.

Mahathir sacked Anwar, who was also expelled from UMNO and charged with corruption and sodomy, the latter a crime in the largely Muslim nation.

He was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption in 1999, with an additional nine-year prison term added for the sodomy charge the following year, the two sentences running consecutively.

As Anwar claimed political persecution, street protests erupted and evolved into a movement calling for democratic reforms.

Photos of Anwar with a black eye, inflicted in prison by Malaysia's then police chief, were published in newspapers around the world, turning him into a symbol for a struggle that adopted the battle cry of "Reformasi!", or reforms.

- Despair and hope -

The Mahathir-Anwar tussle has dominated and shaped Malaysian politics over the past four decades, "alternately bringing despair and hope, progress and regress to the country's polity", according to Oh Ei Sun of the Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.

The Malaysian Supreme Court overturned Anwar's sodomy conviction in 2004 and ordered him freed.

After a brief hiatus from politics as an academic, Anwar returned to lead an opposition coalition in the 2013 general election.

His alliance won 50.87 percent of the popular vote but failed to muster the numbers needed for a parliamentary majority.

Controversy continued to hound the married father of six. He was again sentenced to jail for sodomy in 2015, this time for five years, at the age of 70.

He has maintained his innocence and received a full pardon from the Malaysian king three years into his sentence. Anwar returned to parliament months later after winning a by-election.

- Fragile alliance -

Anwar allied with Mahathir during the 2018 elections when his erstwhile tormentor came out of retirement to challenge incumbent Najib Razak, who was mired in the billion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal.

Their alliance scored a historic victory against UMNO and Najib, who is serving a 12-year jail term for corruption.

Mahathir became prime minister for the second time, this time with an agreement to hand over the premiership to Anwar later.

He never fulfilled that pact, and their alliance collapsed after 22 months, leaving Anwar empty-handed again and paving the way for UMNO to return to power.

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