Abdullah’s early exit and Anwar’s failure to take over raise the spectre of Mahathir’s return

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The creases from his predecessor’s seat had hardly settled when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced on October 9 that he would step down as prime minister and president of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in March 2009.

The announcement was not entirely unexpected, because many had felt that although the pressure for him to resign was strong, the stakes were even higher for a prime minister to resign voluntarily. Abdullah had earlier promised to hand over power to his deputy Najib Razak in 2010, in a move seen to appease heightened criticism from his own party and the ruling coalition over his leadership. His decision to resign early is seen as a blow to the anti-Mahathir faction in the party that wants to end Mahathir’s legacy that sowed the seeds of UMNO’s growing unpopularity.

One thing almost all observers agree on is this: with Najib as prime minister, the ghost of Mahathir will be resurrected. The former PM had all along treated the prime minister’s office as his private property, arguing and naming candidates who were more eligible to become the next prime minister. Now that his wish to see Abdullah gone is fulfilled, Mahathir is seen to be readying to put a brake on many of the reforms agreed upon by Abdullah. Najib, tainted by numerous scandals and unanswered accusations, is seen as the man who would dance to his tune.

During his short tenure, Abdullah earned Mahathir’s wrath for undoing many of his pet projects as well as initiating some reforms that were aimed at undoing Mahathir’s legacy. Coming at a time when reforms in the form of fighting corruption, greater media freedom as well as a credible judiciary were in their infancy, or being paid mere lip-service at this stage, the change in leadership may not bode well for Malaysia’s cleansing process after years of mess left by Mahathir.

In spite of his weak leadership and fickle-minded administration style, Abdullah’s short five years are not entirely without achievement. His government has at least admitted to the need for reforms, the battle cry of the opposition since it was galvanized by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim not long ago. The government-controlled media picked it up only in the last five years; prior to that it would have landed any person who espoused such thoughts behind bars.

All this of course has been helpful to the opposition, who got a shot in the arm with Anwar as its leader. As the opposition’s parliamentary leader and designated prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar serves as a reminder to government backbenchers about the opposition’s seriousness to take over even at the federal level beyond the five state governments it controls since the March 2008 elections. Many also believed that it is this prime ministerial aura that Anwar carries with him that has made the opposition coalition durable, lasting longer than expected, in spite of ideological differences, particularly between the Islamic Party (PAS), and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) which strives for a secular Malaysia.

The Malaysian opposition’s feared readiness to take over would be the envy of opposition parties in many countries. This fear reached a climax on September 16, the date mentioned by Anwar and parroted by other opposition leaders to signal the end of the UMNO-led National Coalition’s half-a-century grip on power. Events unfolding later showed that something went wrong with the takeover plan as Anwar tried to explain that the delay, or rather the anti-climax, was due to “technical glitches”. Even as this article is being written, the prime minister-in-waiting is adamant that the much-awaited change will occur, and he definitely does not mean that to be after the next general elections due in 2012. Only, as he has repeatedly claimed, he wants to ensure a smooth transition and is weighing several options, which include talking to the king who can ask the prime minister to step down should Anwar prove he has the numbers through defectors from the ruling parties.

But signs of weariness emerged on October 22 when Anwar conceded, for the first time that he was running out of options to unseat the government. “I am not saying we have no options left, but I’m saying it’s getting to be much more difficult,” he recently told Bloomberg. That is what the rumour had been all along that although Anwar may have had enough defectors as claimed, he probably did not have the consent of the king to form the new government.

Anwar may have given up convincing Malaysians that he has the numbers. Weeks after the crucial September 16 date, even fewer are convinced now about his plan. None of the so-called defecting government lawmakers–”more than 30–”have had the courage to identify themselves publicly. Opposition quarters have offered the excuse that it could be due to their fear of government action under such draconian laws as the Internal Security Act. If that is a risk the lawmakers are not prepared to take, many wonder if these defecting MPs are indeed suitable to effect change in the first place.

Many people in Malaysia were disappointed with the non-event of September 16. Hit by the biggest fuel price hike of any petroleum-exporting country, it created a chain reaction of rising cost of living, unemployment and all the ills that come with them. Anwar’s promise to slash petrol prices back to its former level was virtually the single most important issue used to garner public support for his mid-September plan. Yet it is also true that a large segment of the population is convinced that a new government with new approach to governance may just be the answer to many of the country’s problems. Thus when the government hurriedly slashed the price of petrol just two days before the Permatang Pauh by-election that Anwar won on August 26, it had no effect on voters compared to Anwar’s repeated promise to become the prime minister in three weeks. He went on to win by a big margin in what is seen as a sweet comeback almost ten years after he was arrested, tortured and jailed on trumped up charges.

September 16, however, has passed without the much-trumpeted change; Anwar’s credibility has suffered somewhat, perhaps badly. It seems the only way he could regain his popularity to the level it was in the days following his electoral victory would be if the takeover were to actually happen. But as days pass by, a dwindling number of people are convinced that this will happen. Many people are so fed up with the status quo that they would welcome a change whenever it occurred.

Since the March 2008 elections, Anwar was seen as a vulture waiting to pounce upon the carcass of a dying UMNO. With Abdullah out and Najib in, it is feared that the vulture may turn out to be the eighty-something Mahathir, dying to have the last laugh. That is a scenario most Malaysians would want to avoid, at any cost.

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