Malaysia power shift unlikely despite Dr M factor

  • Pakatan Harapan (PH), the main opposition coalition in Malaysia, named Mahathir Mohamad as its prime ministerial candidate in Jan 18 ahead of the general election, which must be held by Aug 18.
  • The 92-year-old has injected vigour and urgency into the coalition, boosting confidence at a time when the approval ratings of the prime minister, Najib Razak, remain low (see chart). Nevertheless, we do not think that Mr Mahathir’s appeal will be enough to defeat Mr Najib at the ballot box.
  • Mr Mahathir’s dissatisfaction with Mr Najib’s handling of the 1MDB corruption scandal convinced him to return to active politics, having retired in 2003. He has buried his feud with the de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim — whom he sacked from his cabinet in 1998 and subsequently jailed for corruption and sodomy, a move Mr Anwar said was politically motivated – and they are now working to unseat Mr Najib.
  • Mr Anwar and most of the opposition leadership have welcomed Mr Mahathir into their fold. Mr Anwar would have been PH’s preferred prime ministerial candidate had he been eligible. But another sodomy conviction, which put him in jail in 2013, means he will be barred from public office for five years after his release, which is expected in Jun 18.
  • Mr Anwar’s ineligibility means Mr Mahathir is the only candidate capable of imposing discipline over the unruly four-party opposition pact. Several opposition leaders told FTCR that the coalition’s decision-making had accelerated under Mr Mahathir, reversing the sclerosis suffered during Mr Anwar’s absence.
  • More importantly, Mr Mahathir is the only figure with significant sway among rural Malays, who remember his two-decade premiership fondly but traditionally vote for BN. Mr Mahathir was the leader of BN while he was in power and is now hoping to take votes away from his former coalition.
  • Mr Mahathir’s appeal among Malays is important to the urban-centric PH after the mainly rural Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) broke away acrimoniously from PH’s predecessor coalition in 2014 over a variety of issues including the role of Islam in Malaysia.
  • Mr Mahathir is especially popular among young Malays — Malaysia has a median age of 29 — who remember him as a moderniser but do not recall the turbulent period after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. BN has tried to undermine Mr Mahathir by highlighting the many controversies he played a role in.
  • Our 4Q17 survey of 1,000 urban Malaysians showed Mr Najib is generally more unpopular among 18-29 year olds than with those in their 30s and 40s. But the respondents most unhappy with the prime minister are those aged more than 50, the people who may feel indebted to Mr Mahathir’s leadership in the 1980s and 1990s (see chart).

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