Form a cavernous office in a posh part of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, Mahathir Mohamad is sowing dissent. “This government is really destroying the country,” complains the cantankerous former prime minister, now 91 and still sporting his trademark safari suit. His 22 years in power came courtesy of UMNO, the party that has led Malaysia’s ruling coalitions since independence in the 1950s. But Dr Mahathir has lost all faith in UMNO: it is time, he says, to overthrow it.
On September 8th Dr Mahathir became the founding chairman of a new political party which aims to do just that. The registration of Bersatu, which means “United” in Malay, is the latest step in a long campaign that Dr Mahathir has been waging against Najib Razak, Malaysia’s scandal-hit prime minister. Even more strikingly, Dr Mahathir is seeking help from Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy and now Malaysia’s opposition leader, with whom he fell out in dramatic fashion in 1998. The two men met for the first time since then earlier this month.
Dr Mahathir resigned Malaysia’s premiership in 2003, but has found it impossible to resist bashing his successors. In 2009 his carping helped to bring down the prime minister of the day, Abdullah Badawi, and usher Mr Najib into power. Since Mr Najib fumbled a general election three years ago, Dr Mahathir has campaigned for his removal too.
What looked like a personal vendetta became a national cause last year, when it emerged that billions had been looted from 1MDB, a state-owned investment firm. American investigators have indirectly accused Mr Najib of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the beleaguered company. Mr Najib admits to having banked whopping sums, but says the money was a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal, and that most of it has been returned.
To widespread disgust, Mr Najib has managed to squelch dissent within UMNO, thereby hanging onto his job. Indeed, he appears more safely enthroned than ever. He has brushed aside official enquiries and replaced critics in the cabinet with flunkeys. Long fading in the cities, UMNO has whipped up support among rural voters who have only limited knowledge of the scandal—to whom it bleats that it is being picked on by foreigners and ethnic minorities. The next general election is not due until 2018, but some think Mr Najib may be feeling confident enough to call it next year.
Bersatu aims to field as many candidates as possible in the coming polls, and promises to target UMNO’s seats in particular. At its heart are several former government officials whom Mr Najib has recently purged. They include Muhyiddin Yassin, a former deputy prime minister sacked last year after speaking out about the 1MDB affair, and Dr Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, who used to run Kedah, a small northern state. Dr Mahathir says he will not stand for parliament himself.
The former prime minister still has many fans in Malaysia, including among young ethnic Malays who have little memory of his time in power. But snagging more than a handful of seats will be tough. Malaysian elections heavily favour incumbent governments, which control most print media and can train vast resources on gerrymandered constituencies.
To stand any chance, Bersatu will need to cosy up to Malaysia’s other opposition parties, which nearly toppled the government in 2013 but are now squabbling. That explains the courting of Mr Anwar, who was arrested shortly after Dr Mahathir sacked him, beaten by the chief of police and jailed for corruption and sodomy after a farcical trial, as Dr Mahathir stood by. Since last year Mr Anwar has been back in prison, convicted in a new sodomy case which looks just as suspect as the last. Dr Mahathir says he has “no problem with him now”. On September 5th he made a surprise appearance at a court hearing which Mr Anwar had been allowed out of his cell to attend (pictured). The two men spoke privately for half an hour.
A pact of some sort seems likely, and is essential if Mr Najib’s enemies are not to squander the next election through three- or four-cornered fights. But Malaysia’s liberals would feel much happier if Dr Mahathir were more contrite about his part in the country’s present predicament. He is probably right to insist that, on his watch, corruption was more limited than the lurid misdeeds of which the present leadership stands accused. But it was under his tenure that UMNO’s leaders became so hard to dislodge, and Malaysia’s courts so cowed.
One big worry for the opposition is how far Dr Mahathir’s conversion goes. No one doubts his visceral disdain for Mr Najib. Less certain is whether, given a choice, he and his party would stop short of ousting UMNO altogether. Previous splinters from UMNO have eventually reattached themselves to the party. The government claims Dr Mahathir’s real goal is to install his son as prime minister.
Dr Mahathir scoffs at all this. He admits he once thought that replacing the prime minister would be enough to put UMNO back on track. But he says Mr Najib has “totally corrupted” the party, which now “just functions to support him”. He says there is no way Bersatu would consider a deal that leaves UMNO in government, even under a new leader. “The time for UMNO is over,” he insists.