Malaysian Opposition Picks Mahathir to Fight Najib

Updated on
  • Ex-premier will be interim prime minister if opposition wins
  • Malaysia to hold 14th general election within months
92-Year-Old Mahathir to Lead Malaysian Opposition

Malaysia’s opposition named Mahathir Mohamad, 92, as candidate for prime minister in an election that must be held by August.

Once Malaysia’s longest serving premier, Mahathir will battle against his own hand-picked heir, Prime Minister Najib Razak, 64. The coalition known as Pakatan Harapan, or Pact of Hope, said at its convention Sunday that Mahathir would remain prime minister until jailed de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, 70, is eligible to take over.

The opposition has struggled to make gains since dealing Najib his biggest-ever blow in 2013, when it won the popular vote and caused the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to take home its lowest number of parliamentary seats. A December survey by Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research showed that Najib’s coalition may regain its two-thirds majority in parliament, the Malaysian Insight reported.

“Mahathir will be a tough opponent to Najib,” said Ibrahim Suffian, program director at Merdeka Centre. “So while the survey presently indicates the situation as being uphill for Pakatan, we still have perhaps two to three months to the election, which is at least half a lifetime in politics.”

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Having ruled as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir has been out of office for 15 years. While he was instrumental in removing Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from power in 2009, his influence has waned over the years and it’s unclear how much voter support he can command. His nomination was met with resistance from some members of Pakatan Harapan, which delayed the final decision.

“It wasn’t easy for me to join a movement that was not happy with me in the past, but the effort to topple Najib is greater than my feelings,” Mahathir said in a speech after his nomination. “Therefore, I am willing to cooperate and listen to the criticism toward my old party.”

Pakatan was formed in 2015, after policy differences and the sentencing of Anwar for sodomy hastened the implosion of a previous alliance. The opposition is seeking a royal pardon for Anwar, with the prison’s director-general saying he is set to be released on June 8.

If Anwar receives the pardon after the Pakatan Harapan government is installed, he would need to contest and win in a by-election for a parliamentary seat to be eligible to become the country’s prime minister. Pakatan also named Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, opposition chief in parliament and Anwar’s wife, as candidate for deputy prime minister.

Najib has yet to publicly comment on Mahathir’s appointment. The prime minister is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia this week.

(Updates with Najib’s trip to Saudi Arabia in final paragraph.)
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