Malaysia: Tensions and an Opening for Anwar

From Stratfor of August 16, 2006


Tensions have been on the rise between former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi -- especially after Abdullah scrapped one of Mahathir's pet projects, a bridge between Singapore and Malaysia. Exchanges of vitriolic rhetoric between the two may be destabilizing the ruling United Malays National Organization. These tensions also offer an interesting opportunity to another formerly prominent Malaysian politician, former Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim.


Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is publicly lashing out at his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. His most vocal complaint has been over Abdullah's scrapping of one of Mahathir's pet projects, a bridge between Singapore and Malaysia that would replace an ageing causeway and allow ships to pass beneath.
Like Malaysians in general, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is divided on the bridge issue, and more fundamentally, on whether it owes allegiance to Mahathir or Abdullah. Many Malaysians were ready for new leadership when Mahathir relinquished power in 2003 to Abdullah after 22 years, but Abdullah has been slow in implementing the anti-corruption policies he promised in his campaign for the premiership. This power struggle will make alternatives to Abdullah more attractive -- an opportunity former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will capitalize on.
Abdullah's decision to scrap the bridge illustrated his intention to move away from the policies of his former mentor, Mahathir. But Mahathir does not like his authority to be questioned, as Anwar is keenly aware. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Mahathir's chosen successor at the time, Anwar, diverged from Mahathir's policies by suggesting the Southeast Asian nation should follow the path outlined by the International Monetary Fund. But Mahathir had other ideas. Soon after this disagreement, Anwar found himself in jail facing sodomy and corruption charges.
Mahathir's second choice for a successor, Abdullah, is also selecting an alternative path than the one set by Mahathir, who founded UNMO. There are many reasons, and much speculation, on why the bridge linking Malaysia to Singapore was scrapped. Ultimately, killing the bridge represented a challenge to Mahathir's legacy. But Mahathir is not ready to bow out of politics altogether. Mahathir, who only had a few years to groom Abdullah, expected the latter to rely on Mahathir's power base, thereby allowing Mahathir to rule even after retirement. Abdullah's decision to scrap the bridge illustrates his efforts to build his own power base distinct from Mahathir's, something Mahathir did not expect and cannot accept.
The current row between Mahathir and Abdullah has UMNO debating its own future. Many members of UNMO remain loyal to Mahathir, while others are loyal to the party and its leader, Abdullah. Enter Anwar. Anwar's Keadilan party offers a viable alternative to UMNO, one where disgruntled UMNO members can rejoin one of their own. Although Anwar has Islamist roots, his party touts itself as multiethnic and multiracial. Such an alternative is becoming more attractive in Malaysia, a society divided by race and ethnicity. Anwar is seen as a moderate, though devout, Muslim and as a post-Islamist, which many see as important in an era characterized by religious extremism.
Anwar developed many ties during his years as deputy prime minister and as a UMNO member. Many politicians credit their rise in UMNO to Anwar -- and their fall to Anwar's conviction. Anwar's return could bring these politicians back into the fold. There is even a chance Anwar might choose to make his political comeback under UMNO's umbrella, rather than as part of Keadilan. He is banned from standing for party office or for parliament until April 2008, despite being cleared of his sodomy conviction, meaning he cannot truly control Keadilan until then. Abdullah, who could use Anwar to help break completely with Mahathir and form a new version of UMNO, may decide to entice Anwar back into UMNO by lifting the prohibition on his involvement in politics.
Even so, there will not be an immediate split in UMNO. Current tensions will persist, making policymaking increasingly difficult. These circumstances will boost Anwar's image, possibly spurring Abdullah to pardon Anwar in a bid to strengthen his own rule. This will ultimately give Anwar the opportunity to get what he wants: another chance to become Malaysia's prime minister.

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