Commentary: "The Only Way He'll Leave Office Is in a Box"

In recent weeks, speculation has swirled that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is on his way out. Those who subscribe to this view believe Mahathir never fully recovered from the widely decried jailing of his ambitious heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998. Since Anwar was jailed, Mahathir's party has lost ground and the PM's standing has fallen among the Malay majority. The Prime Minister has said he will stay on until his newly designated successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, is ready to take over. That will happen soon, say Mahathir's opponents, who expect the Malaysian leader to leave in disgrace.

But don't wave good-bye to Dr. M. just yet. Badawi, after all, is just the latest in a series of contenders for the top job. And while Mahathir has been damaged politically by the Anwar affair and other problems, it would be foolish to underestimate the wily 75-year-old politician's staying power. Veteran Malaysia watchers say he is really concocting a scheme to rule by proxy for the rest of his life. "The only way he'll leave office is in a box," says a diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. According to this view, Mahathir plans to install a weak leader--Badawi--who would preserve Mahathir's legacy as patron saint of Malaysia Inc.

Mahathir, meanwhile, would continue to rule from the wings through his leadership of the powerful United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling coalition. A similar formula has worked in Singapore, where Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew is still regarded as the island's paramount leader--and still vies with Mahathir for the distinction of being Asia's elder statesman, 11 years after resigning as Prime Minister.

GROUNDWORK. Mahathir could put his plan in motion as early as next year. He has already laid the groundwork by proposing two key changes in UMNO's constitution. One would let him remain party president without also serving as Premier, as is now required. The other would let him hold the party presidency until after the next election. Normally the President steps down before the polls and reclaims the post only if UMNO is reelected. By changing the rules, Mahathir would reduce his political risk should his party perform poorly. Then, assuming UMNO was returned to power as expected, Mahathir would make Badawi Prime Minister, leaving himself in control of the UMNO apparatus, one of the most potent political machines in East Asia.

One advantage of this plan is that it deftly resolves the succession issue, perhaps Malaysia's most destabilizing element. The other advantage--for Mahathir, at least--is that holding on to the party machine would leave him with the real power, a vast crony network that runs Malaysia's largest banks and heavy industries. As Prime Minister, Badawi would be expected to continue Mahathir's economic policies, such as trade protection for companies, and retain affirmative-action laws that favor Malays over the economically powerful Chinese community.

A former Foreign Minister and Education Minister, Badawi, 60, has spent 21 years in the Cabinet, only six years less than Mahathir himself. Known among Southeast Asian diplomats as "the quiet man," Badawi is seen as one of the few senior UMNO officials who is unlikely to mount an attack against Mahathir or his two sons, Mirzan and Mokhzani, who are active in banking, shipping, and other businesses. Mahathir has already pushed aside any real rivals to Badawi, including, of course, Anwar.

The shadow-shogun scenario looks like a neat way for Mahathir to retain power. The only potential flaw in the plan is Badawi himself. He may be too weak to reverse UMNO's internal and external problems, even with Mahathir in the background. UMNO's fortunes have flagged since the last election in November, 1999, when the party turned in its worst showing in 40 years. Last December, after an ethnic Indian party allied with UMNO lost a symbolically important by-election, party leaders publicly criticized Mahathir for the first time. The defeat, senior UMNO leader Shamir Samad told reporters, proved Malay voters were fed up with "the character of our leader, Dr. Mahathir."

The PM is gambling that simply by signaling his succession plan, he will restore stability to long-ruling UMNO --and, by association, to the country at large. Will voters buy it? Many Malaysians hanker after economic and political reform. Some are joining ranks with the increasingly popular fundamentalist Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.

Rather than implement economic reforms that would be painful for UMNO cronies, Mahathir has called for unprecedented "unity talks" with PAS. His critics have been quick to depict this as a sign of weakness. But others see it as a clever way for him to identify PAS sympathizers in UMNO ranks and root them out later. Malaysia's politicians would do well to remember that Dr. M. has outmaneuvered many an opponent before.

By Michael Shari

Shari is Singapore bureau chief.

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