KUALA LUMPUR–When President George W. Bush met veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at an international summit in France earlier this month he asked him: “Are you still in power?”
Bush may wish one of the most trenchant critics of US foreign policy in the Islamic and developing world would leave the stage, but Mahathir, aged 77, has another four months to go.
After 22 years in power, he hands over to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in October. It has been a long fade-out.
This year’s United Malays National OrganiZation general assembly opens on Thursday and it will be Mahathir’s swansong as party president and Abdullah’s chance to stamp some authority.
A year ago, at the UMNO get-together, party leaders led away a weepy Mahathir before he finished a shock resignation speech.
They persuaded him to stay on to ensure the soft-spoken Abdullah was safely ensconced with a minimum of in-fighting ahead of a general election expected in early 2004.
The three-day gathering later this week will feature large dollops of sentimentality and flattery from a party that revolves around deference and patronage.
An UMNO insider predicted “there’ll be a lot of people crying” for a leader who oversaw Malaysia’s industrialization and the building of a First World infrastructure.
But Muslim Malays have one of the youngest populations in Asia and many will be glad to see the back of “the Old Man,” as Mahathir is known.
He hectors them for being lazy underachievers, still unable to match a go-getting Chinese minority after three decades of affirmative action programs.
Abdullah’s style will be easier on the ear for both Malays and Malaysia’s main trading partner, the United States.
But policies won’t change much, and the greater issue is the stability of UMNO, a party of two million members.
UMNO has led all of Malaysia’s multiethnic coalitions since independence from Britain in 1957, while championing Malays.
“I hope there are no more splinters, as splinters have a way of getting under the skin,” Mahathir told UMNO’s elite at a social function last week.
Abdullah, UMNO’s “Mr. Clean,” is unlikely to risk rocking the party with any wholesale cleanup of its seamy money politics.
This week, the party will watch for any clue Abdullah gives on his choice of deputy.
The favored candidates are Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Consumer Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
“I can assure you, from my side it will be stable,” Muhyiddin told Reuters. He is expected to lose out.
Power plays and splits have beset UMNO ever since the ousting of its founder Onn Ja’afar in 1951. Islamists, led by turbaned clerics, broke from the party in the 1950s.
Mahathir was expelled from UMNO himself at the end of the 1960s for an attack which eventually felled Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In 1998, at the height of the Asian crisis, UMNO was sundered again when Mahathir sacked his finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, whose subsequent jailing prompted mass protests.
But now the economy is among Asia’s best performers, and the Anwar issue and the Islamist challenge are both fading.
UMNO vice president Muhyiddin saw every reason to make Abdullah’s accession as smooth as possible.
“We should learn from history.”