KUALA LUMPUR - IS MALAYSIA'S former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad planning a political comeback?
The retired politician's blistering attack on Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's government last week over Malaysia's scrapping of a new bridge project to link Singapore has set tongues wagging that a return of some form is on the cards.
'It is very clear that he is unhappy about the way Abdullah is running things and he wants to do something about it,' says Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who teaches sociology at the National University of Malaysia.
But no one is suggesting that Tun Dr Mahathir is planning a leadership grab.
The former prime minister, who underwent triple bypass surgery 15 years ago, is 80 years old and close associates say he has been advised by his doctors to take it easy because he is very susceptible to heart problems.
But there are concerns that Malaysia's redoubtable strongman, who survived numerous challenges to his leadership during his 22 years in power, could give some serious political grief to Datuk Seri Abdullah in the coming months.
A more politically active Tun Mahathir would put Malaysia's business elite, who have long relied on the state for business, on edge because of potential uncertainty born of a shifting power structure.
It could also upset a budding rally on the Malaysian stock market, say analysts.
Close associates of the former premier say that Tun Mahathir's displeasure with Datuk Seri Abdullah stems from his belief that the current administration is on a campaign to smear and systematically dismantle his legacy.
For the past two years, the combative politician has chided the 30-month-old Abdullah administration for overturning some of his many economic initiatives and for not giving enough state assistance to pet projects such as national carmaker Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd, or Proton.
The simmering dissatisfaction burst into outright hostility last week when Tun Mahathir accused his successor of caving in to Singapore's opposition to plans to build a new bridge to replace the Causeway that links the two countries.
Tun Dr Mahathir, who often crossed swords with Singapore during his 22-year tenure, said that the Malaysian government's decision to scrap the bridge project he proposed in 1996 was tantamount to surrendering the country's sovereignty.
Referring to Malaysia's former premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was forced to step down after the racial riots in May 1969, and Thailand's Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, who stepped down as premier early this month to mollify rising public anger over allegations of corruption, Tun Mahathir also warned his successor of the perils of ignoring public sentiment.
'Please remember what happened to Tunku for not listening to the people. The most recent example is Thaksin. They did not listen to people and they got into trouble,' he said.
Tun Mahathir's close associates say that his sharp remarks reflected his personal attachment to the bridge project.
'Mahathir intended the bridge to be a sign of nationalism and to reflect the current state of relations with Singapore,' says a senior Kuala Lumpur businessman who enjoys close relations with Tun Mahathir.
But many Malaysians view the caustic comments as a direct political challenge to Datuk Seri Abdullah.
'To say that he (Mahathir) is unhappy is an understatement. And it would be a mistake to underestimate him,' former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim told The Straits Times in an interview last week.
Datuk Seri Anwar, who served six years in jail for corruption and sexual misconduct after a dramatic falling out with Tun Mahathir in 1998, believes that his former mentor will intensify his attacks against Datuk Seri Abdullah in the coming months.
'This is just the beginning,' he predicts.
Several analysts agree that Tun Mahathir is unlikely to let up on his attacks against the Malaysian government.
They believe he is likely to organise meetings with members of the ruling party, Umno, to explain his criticism of the current administration.
Tun Mahathir fired his first broadside last Friday with the publication of an open letter in a widely read Umno-sponsored website detailing his version of events concerning the failed bridge project.
The same letter was also distributed to Members of Parliament and senior Umno officials.
What is the likely upshot of it all? Many analysts believe that the former premier's rants will not amount to much.
'Apart from a small group of people who have an axe to grind with Abdullah, I don't think Mahathir's attacks, past, present or future, will have any huge conflict-generating impact,' says Prof Shamsul of the National University of Malaysia.
The professor argues that unseating an incumbent is extremely difficult in a political system which is largely patronage-driven.
Before he stepped down in November 2003, Tun Mahathir had kept his supremacy within the government and Umno by generating corporate wealth through a steady flow of easy credit, privatised infrastructure projects and government contracts and licences.
Datuk Seri Abdullah, who recently unveiled a RM200 billion (S$87 billion) five-year development plan, is now in the position to dispense patronage.
Analysts argue that Umno politicians and business groups linked to the party are unlikely to oppose Datuk Seri Abdullah in any face-off with Tun Mahathir for fear that they could be dropped or blacklisted in the contest for contract awards under the country's new development plans.
The Prime Minister's inner circle believes that Datuk Seri Abdullah does not intend to comment directly on Tun Mahathir's statements out of respect for his former boss.
'There is tremendous respect and Abdullah doesn't want that jeopardised,' says a senior aide.
It is also politically astute. By refusing to be drawn into any confrontation with his former boss, he is enabling Tun Mahathir to make himself the central issue in his campaign against the Abdullah-led administration, some analysts say.
Tun Mahathir's criticisms of Datuk Seri Abdullah have only underscored the shortcomings of his own economic policies, which featured a state-led push into heavy industries and the construction of so-called mega projects.
Today, Tun Mahathir's push into heavy industries lies in tatters. His government poured billions of dollars into cement and steel ventures that ultimately flopped.
National carmaker Proton, the sole surviving vestige of Tun Mahathir's heavy industries programme, is also under siege from foreign competition and the dismantling of trade barriers.
Datuk Seri Abdullah's economic plans are more conservative compared to his predecessor's and on Monday the Premier offered the rationale for his cautious approach in economic management.
'Never mind that I may not build great monuments or glittering cities. I am told this will be popular and will grease the wheels of our economy,' he told a gathering of business leaders in Kuala Lumpur.
Many private economists believe that Datuk Seri Abdullah's conscious efforts to distance himself from his predecessor's policies by curbing government spending and reviewing many of Tun Mahathir's large infrastructure ventures have been crucial in restoring Malaysia's economic fundamentals.
'Malaysia needed a period of rectification (in the economy). There were some misjudgments and some sectors of the economy required adjustments,' says Mr Manu Bhaskaran, partner of US-based Centennial Group, in Singapore.
While Datuk Seri Abdullah's position appears secure enough, several analysts say that forces aligned to Tun Mahathir could easily tap on the strong undercurrents in Umno to weaken the Premier's grip on power.
One potentially destabilising issue is political succession in Malaysia.
The 66-year-old Datuk Seri Abdullah and Tun Mahathir are considered to be from the same political generation, and many Umno members believe the next leadership succession, which would pave the way for Deputy Premier Najib Abdul Razak, should take place sooner.
Several analysts say that Tun Mahathir's political agitation against Datuk Seri Abdullah would fit in nicely for those seeking to push forward the succession timetable.
'There is a view that Abdullah should only stay for one term and there are many in the party who would like to see him politically weakened to make way for a power change,' says a senior Umno official aligned to the Premier.
Close associates of Datuk Seri Abdullah say that the Premier is aware that some party officials may be impatient. 'But Abdullah is determined to go for another term. The change he wants to bring about will take time and he wants to see it through,' says a close aide.