Mahathir-Anwar power transition

‘People first – that’s what democracy should be’

It was no secret that when the then-92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister after an historic election win earlier this year, he planned to give up the position to rival-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim. But how exactly will that play out?

Amanda Kaufmann
November 1, 2018
‘People first – that’s what democracy should be’
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) with his former opponent, the politician Anwar Ibrahim Photo: Fazry Ismail / EPA-EFE

Malaysia’s general election in May brought together an unlikely coalition led by two former rivals – ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – in an effort to oust the decades-long ruling party. Mahathir won the election to become prime minister, and the king simultaneously pardoned Anwar, who had just served three years in jail on sodomy charges. A sitting member of Parliament, whose party was in the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, stepped down in order to trigger a by-election for his vacant seat in early October. Anwar proved victorious and is now a member of Parliament – and is expected to take Mahathir’s position as the country’s next prime minister. International relations expert Dr Khoo Ying Hooi explains how this transition is likely to go.


What is the timeline realistically for Anwar Ibrahim to take over as prime minister? What are some of the factors that would influence this, both within the coalition and in Malaysia’s political climate more broadly?

The timeline is two years, as indicated by both leaders – Anwar, and then re-emphasised by Mahathir. One possible factor that might impact this timeline depends on how the PH coalition is able to manage and solve the internal struggle that is now happening within the coalition between the Anwar camp and the Mahathir camp. In many events, both leaders as well as other politicians in PH have tried their best to do away with the differences between the two. However, I certainly hope whatever happens, both leaders come with the vision to bring a better Malaysia to the people. People first – that’s what democracy should be.

What role, if any, would the ongoing efforts to prosecute Najib Razak for his role in the 1MDB scandal play in this transition? What advantages, if any, are there in Mahathir leading the offensive against the former prime minister?

The ongoing investigations and charges against former Prime Minister Najib Razak is part of the PH effort in political reforms, particularly in corruption, and this is an issue of a legal process in strengthening the country’s rule of law.

Even in the event of a timely and smooth transition, will Mahathir be entirely out of power, or would he presumably retain some authority? In what way?

I presume he will still have some influence in the coalition and the government, unless he opts to be entirely out of it. However, on a lighter note, I think people very often forget about his old age, where he will be 95 in another two years. So on the question of whether it is a timely transition: It is something that will happen eventually, the uncertainty is how and its sustainability. And even more importantly, what are the impacts of such a transition on Malaysians?

What is the significance of Anwar saying that he won’t take a cabinet position?

Well, he doesn’t need any cabinet position for now. I presume it is a crucial time for him during this transition period to strengthen his support and to convince people of his credibility to be the next prime minister replacing Mahathir, rather than a cabinet position for the time being.



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