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Analysis, Politics

Mahathir – The Comeback Kid?

Over a decade after stepping down, Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is back in politics – hand-in-hand with a former rival and at the head of the opposition.

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Updated: February 1, 2018

On January 7, Malaysia’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, named Mahathir its candidate for Prime Minister should it win the General Election in August – on the condition that his jailed former rival Anwar Ibrahim will take over should he receive a royal pardon after his release from prison.

At 92, Mahathir may soon become the world’s oldest leader, but despite Malaysia’s period of economic growth under his leadership, not everyone relishes the thought of Malaysia’s strongman making a second bid for power.

Humble Beginnings

Born the son of a schoolmaster, Mahathir first entered parliament in 1964 as a member of Malaysia’s largest party, UMNO. Always outspoken, he endured a rocky start to his political career, serving until 1969 before being kicked out of UMNO by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Undeterred, Mahathir returned to the party in 1972 following Abdul Rahman’s resignation in 1970. From there, he climbed the political ladder, becoming a member of parliament in 1974 and Deputy Prime Minister in 1976. In 1981, Mahathir became Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister.

Under Mahathir’s leadership, Malaysia underwent a period of modernisation and strong economic growth. Under his watch, Malaysia went from exporting tin and rubber to manufacturing electronic equipment, steel and cars, according to the BBC. The decade of growth experienced by Malaysia ended in 1997 with the onset of the Asian economic crisis, and Mahathir blamed foreign currency traders for Malaysia’s debt, the BBC reported.

His long reign as Prime Minister was also marred by controversy. Mahathir was criticised for favouring Malays over other ethnic groups in Malaysia, and drew flak for his incendiary comments targeting the West and Jews.

In 1998, he abruptly fired his heir-apparent Anwar Ibrahim over differences in economic policy and accused him of sodomy and corruption, a move which triggered street protests. Anwar was found guilty after a controversial trial and imprisoned for charges that he maintains were politically motivated.

Mahathir’s introduction of the Internal Securities Act in 2000 – which led to the imprisonment of suspected militants without trial – also drew criticism, with some accusing the Prime Minister of using the war on terrorism as an excuse to silence opponents, according to the BBC.

In 2003, Mahathir stepped down as Prime Minister, but has continued to play a role in politics.

Old School Crusader

When the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal came to light, Mahathir split from UMNO, now under the control of current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak,and set up his own political party.

He has since shocked Malaysia by teaming up with his former rival, Anwar, for shot at defeating the UMNO-led ruling coalition Barisan Nasional in the upcoming general election.

Still, Mahathir faces an uphill battle. Analysts believe the opposition alliance’s chances of victory are slim, and memories of Mahathir’s actions during his authoritarian rule are still fresh in the minds of Anwar supporters.

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Nadia Chevroulet
About the Author: Nadia is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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