In Malaysia, a decades long political rivalry continues to play out

Prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has indicated he will step aside next year

epa08019158 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) waves to the media, as prime minister in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim (L) smiles, after a press conference held at the conclusion of a presidential council meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 23 November 2019.  EPA/AHMAD YUSNI
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Ever since Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister of Malaysia again, at the age of 92, there has been speculation about when or if he would let Anwar Ibrahim succeed him, as the opposition alliance he led had pledged to do in the run-up to the May 2018 election.

So when Dr Mahathir last week announced he would hand over power to Mr Anwar after hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Kuala Lumpur in November 2020, it was considered a major development in the country.

Just a few days after his announcement, Dr Mahathir, who heads the Pakatan Harapan coalition government, cast doubt about when exactly he would step down and said that he “couldn’t guarantee who would be the best person to take over” from him. So is Mr Anwar, who had been Dr Mahathir’s deputy and anointed heir until being dismissed in 1998, then jailed, then subsequently pardoned – and who had hoped to become prime minister in 2013 after the opposition he then led won more than 50 per cent of the vote – destined to miss out on the top job once again?

It was just the latest twist in a relationship that has long played out in Malaysian politics.

It was Dr Mahathir who raised Mr Anwar to high office in the 1980s, promoting him rapidly once elected as an MP for the ruling Barisan Nasional in 1982 through a series of ministerial posts. Mr Anwar was brought in to provide the religious credentials that Dr Mahathir lacked. He then won acclaim as Malaysia's finance minister from 1991 and became deputy prime minister in 1993. The older man and his protege were close, as were their families. As the late 1990s approached, the assumption was that Dr Mahathir could not go on as prime minister forever – he had taken office in 1981 – and that Mr Anwar was "the chosen one".

Then came the events of 1998, when Dr Mahathir accused Mr Anwar of sodomy and corruption on both of which charges he was convicted and sent to jail. International opinion vilified Dr Mahathir over Mr Anwar’s treatment.

Mr Anwar's conviction for sodomy was quashed in 2004 under the administration of Dr Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The opposition coalition that Mr Anwar led had been buoyed by managing to win five of the country’s 13 states, including the powerhouses of Penang and Selangor, in the 2008 election.

But Mr Anwar could not force the Barisan Nasional from power in the 2013 election and by 2015, he was back behind bars. By then, Dr Mahathir was beginning to return to the fray.

Before last year’s election, with Mr Anwar still in jail, the opposition needed someone to put forward as prime minister if it won. Dr Mahathir had become such a fierce critic of the incumbent Najib Tun Razak that he turned up to court to support Mr Anwar and shook his hand. Dr Mahathir, still regarded as a political giant, was accepted as the opposition’s candidate, at least until Mr Anwar secured a royal pardon.

In the event, Mr Anwar was pardoned and released a week after the Pakatan Harapan government swept to power and returned to parliament in a by-election six months later. But Dr Mahathir has been very coy about when the handover would occur. He would be a “lame duck” prime minister if he gave a date, he said, and needed time to make the changes he thought necessary.

Not all are fond of Mr Anwar. Some are suspicious of his close friendship with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ties with other Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Yusuf Al Qaradawi. He has been accused of being a chameleon who says one thing to a liberal western audience and another to religious hardliners. On the question of his accession to the prime ministership, Mr Anwar has displayed patience and has urged Malaysians not to push Dr Mahathir on the issue.

Some suspect that the reconciliation between the two is not genuine and that the prime minister is determined to thwart Mr Anwar yet again, either by continuing indefinitely in office, or by promoting another successor, such as economic affairs minister Azmin Ali.

And so, it seems, the prime minister's office remains both close and elusive to Mr Anwar.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum