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The race to lead Malaysia comes down to two long-time rivals

If Anwar, 72, emerges as prime minister, it would mark yet another twist in his decades-long rivalry with the 94-year-old Mahathir.

By: Bloomberg | Published: February 26, 2020 4:31:47 pm
Malaysia, Malaysia politics, Malaysia Mahathir Mohammmed, Mahathir Mohammmed resignation, anwar ibrahim Mahathir said Wednesday he’ll return to power if enough lawmakers support him, while Anwar said he’s “confident” his camp has the numbers to form the next government.

In Malaysian politics, two figures have long played a crucial role: Mahathir Mohamad, who has ruled the country for almost a quarter century, and Anwar Ibrahim, who has perpetually waited to succeed him.

Now the two are facing off head to head as both seek to corral enough lawmakers to form a majority in the 222-seat parliament. Mahathir said Wednesday he’ll return to power if enough lawmakers support him, while Anwar said he’s “confident” his camp has the numbers to form the next government.

Who will ultimately come out on top remains unclear. The king, who plays a largely ceremonial role in Malaysia’s British-style system of government, has been meeting lawmakers from all sides to help him determine who has the support of the majority.

If Anwar, 72, emerges as prime minister, it would mark yet another twist in his decades-long rivalry with the 94-year-old Mahathir. The distrust between them dates back to the 1990s, when Anwar was ousted from Mahathir’s cabinet and arrested for sodomy at a time when both were members of the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The former ruling alliance Pakatan Harapan agreed to propose Anwar as prime minister to the king, according to two people familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified. In another positive sign for Anwar, an alliance of regional parties on the island of Borneo said it would abide by any decision made by the king to resolve the political impasse.

“Thank God I’m always confident,” Anwar told reporters on Wednesday when asked about negotiations to form the next administration. “The numbers are with the king. We’re not supposed to play with the numbers.”

Anwar Ibrahim, founder and president of the People’s Justice Party, talk with media at his headquarters office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg

Internal Divisions

Anwar had been in line to take power from Mahathir after the two joined together in the Pakatan Harapan coalition to win the 2018 election, ousting a coalition that had ruled for six decades. Yet Mahathir repeatedly delayed handover of power, prompting divisions within the ruling bloc to fester — eventually leading to its collapse this week.

The political turmoil has cast a pall over a slowing economy that reported its worst growth rate since 2009, and hampers its ability to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and trade wars. Malaysia’s ringgit headsed for the longest run of losses in nine months.

But Mahathir, who has ruled Malaysia for nearly a quarter-century in two stints, can never be ruled out. The finance ministry announced that he would announce a stimulus package on Thursday, implying he would still be in office.

Over the past 24 hours, two main political camps emerged in the race to form Malaysia’s next government, with Mahathir seen as a favorite to lead either of them.

One was led by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance, which Mahathir’s party withdrew from earlier in the week. The other included the opposition coalition Barisan Nasional, which had ruled the country for six decades until 2018, and an allied Islamic party.

In the middle included Mahathir, his allies and regional parties from the island of Borneo. Ultimately where they end up could determine if Anwar finally achieves his quest to become prime minister.

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