Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving leader, will hit the campaign trail to help Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition win a 13th straight general election after sitting out during the 2008 vote.
“I have promised that I will campaign,” Mahathir, 87, said in a Dec. 5 interview in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative center near Kuala Lumpur. “I don’t know whether I have enough influence or not, but I think people still remember me.”
Mahathir led calls for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to resign after the National Front coalition won the last election by its narrowest margin since independence in 1957. Najib, who took over as leader in 2009, told a party congress last week that he aims to restore the alliance’s two-thirds majority in parliament during the next election, which must be held within 60 days of an April 28 deadline to dissolve parliament.
Najib’s ruling United Malays Nasional Organisation is seeking to stave off a challenge from the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former finance minister who Mahathir fired in 1998 during an Asia-wide financial crisis. The party is more aware of the opposition’s strength than in 2008 and has moved to win back support with budget handouts and political reforms, according to Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“It’s Najib’s to lose,” Ooi said by phone from Singapore, referring to the next election. “He does have a certain advantage of incumbency. Just like 2008, a lot will depend on the nominations and campaigning. Things can shift very quickly.”
Mahathir, while predicting a win for Najib’s coalition, questioned whether it was possible to regain the two-thirds majority in the 222-member parliament, which allows legislation to be passed easily. Mahathir led the National Front to five consecutive victories as prime minister before retiring in 2003.
“This is payback period for me,” Mahathir said. “I must admit, I didn’t support during the last election.”
Anwar’s three-party People’s Alliance opposition coalition made gains in the 2008 election, winning control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states. The National Front, also known as Barisan Nasional, later won back Perak state when several lawmakers defected.
In 1998, soon after Mahathir ousted him, Anwar was arrested and imprisoned for almost six years on corruption and sodomy charges, which he said were politically motivated. Malaysia’s Federal Court quashed the sodomy conviction in 2004, while upholding the corruption charge. He denies wrongdoing.
Najib’s ruling coalition will transfer power peacefully to Anwar if it loses the next election, Mahathir said. The police, military and civil servants are professionals who would back any elected government, he said.
“It will go quietly,” Mahathir said, referring to the National Front. “I have been preaching to people about democracy, even to the Arabs. I tell them if you want to have democracy you must be prepared to lose.”
Najib, 59, cut income taxes, boosted pay for government workers and extended cash handouts for the poor in his 2013 budget announced in September. While the global economy has slowed, Malaysia has maintained gross domestic product growth above 5 percent for the past five quarters and its benchmark stock index closed at a record in October.
The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index was little changed at 12:30 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur today. It has risen 5.6 percent this year, Southeast Asia’s worst performing leading benchmark gauge.
A disputed vote could trigger civil unrest that would involve the intervention of the king and a group of royals that have constitutional powers to appoint elected leaders, according to James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University. Much depends on the margin of victory, he said by phone.
“There will be problems if it is razor thin and it is disputed,” he said, referring to the election outcome. “We don’t really know what will happen because we’ve never had a change of government in Malaysia.”
The National Front held a clear two-thirds majority for four decades until 2008. The last time it lost two-thirds control of parliament was in the 1969 election, which was followed by race riots.
Asked if there could be civil or religious unrest should the National Front fall, Mahathir said: “There will be some, but not the kind of violent unrest like demonstrating every day. If every time you lose you want to hold strikes and demonstrations, that means you don’t understand democracy. You have to accept losing.”
Mahathir said he has traveled the country to urge UMNO party members against sabotaging the vote if they are not selected as candidates to stand in the election, echoing Najib’s warning last week.
“I told them that this is committing suicide,” Mahathir said. “You don’t do that.”