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TheAge: Mahathir's Resurrection
By Mark Baker

24/11/2001 9:01 am Sat

Mahathir's resurrection

Saturday 24 November 2001

In four weeks he will celebrate his 76th birthday. He has been an MP for almost four decades and his nation's leader for more than half that time. When he first came to power, Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines by martial law, Vietnamese troops occupied Cambodia and Bill Hayden was as close as a drover's dog to becoming prime minister of Australia.

Earlier this year, many in Malaysia, including senior members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation, were preparing the political obituaries for Mahathir Mohamad, whose tenure as the Asia-Pacific region's longest-serving leader appeared to be fast approaching its end. Now Dr Mahathir seems assured of remaining Malaysia's Prime Minister for as long as he likes or lives.

Thanks to the extraordinary international events of the past 10 weeks and some deft political footwork at home, there has been a sea change in Malaysian politics: The country's resurgent opposition parties are in disarray and Dr Mahathir is riding the crest of the global political tide that helped sweep the Howard Government back to power in Australia this month.

"He was in real trouble earlier this year, but September 11 was a watershed," says veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, head of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). "It has helped him and many others, Howard included. It has been a salvation for incumbents."

But the shift in Dr Mahathir's political fortunes owes as much to his shrewd political tactics - and what has now been exposed as the fundamental weaknesses that lie beneath the veneer of the opposition's achievements - as it does to the climate in which he has been able to reassert his leadership.

The purging three years ago of deputy prime minister and heir apparent Anwar Ibrahim was the point at which Dr Mahathir's political success as the architect of Malaysia's economic modernisation began to unravel. Many Malaysians and, most importantly, many of UMNO's traditional Malay supporters were deeply shocked by the treatment of the respected Mr Anwar, who was bashed in custody by the then police chief and later jailed for 15 years on now widely discredited corruption and sodomy charges.

At the last general elections two years ago, the UMNO-led Barisan National coalition retained power with a majority of almost two-thirds of the national seats, but suffered a sharp drop in its vote and big gains for the opposition parties, particularly the religious-based party, PAS (Parti Islam se-Malaysia), which captured control of a second state government and consolidated its position across the country. A year ago, Dr Mahathir was humiliated when UMNO was thrashed at a byelection in his home state of Kedah, a seat in which the ruling party had never before been seriously challenged.

The underlying erosion in support for UMNO was compounded by mounting evidence of corruption and nepotism within the leadership and the harsh crackdown on political dissent ordered by an increasingly bitter and desperate Prime Minister. By earlier this year, political analysts, diplomats and some senior figures within UMNO were beginning to canvass the once-unthinkable prospect of UMNO losing the next election to the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif.

It is more than a little ironic that the United States - the country that for years has rivalled Australia as the favorite whipping boy in Dr Mahathir's anti-Western rhetoric - has now emerged as the catalyst for his political resurrection.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and America's decision to strike back at Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors were just the opportunity Dr Mahathir needed to drive an ideological wedge through the disparate ranks of the opposition alliance and to reassert his leadership with the imprimatur of a superpower anxious to secure the backing of moderate Islamic states for its war in Afghanistan.

Prior to September 11, the Bush administration had been frosty in its dealings with Malaysia. At least three envoys sent to Washington by Dr Mahathir were reportedly told that the future course of the relationship hinged on Malaysia's treatment of Mr Anwar and a clutch of other opposition figures jailed without trial under the infamous Internal Security Act.

By the end of September, President George W. Bush was on the phone to Dr Mahathir soliciting his support, Dr Mahathir was writing to Mr Bush with his suggestions for combating global terrorism and, during the APEC summit in Shanghai late in October, Mr Bush held detailed talks with the Malaysian leader - a courtesy not extended to his Australian counterpart, who had already rushed to offer much more than moral support.

Dr Mahathir's cautious backing for military action in Afghanistan left him well positioned when PAS leapt to denounce the war, defending the Taliban and calling for a holy war against the US. A peaceful protest by about 3000 PAS supporters outside the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, led by PAS president Fadzil Mohamad Noor, was broken up by riot police using water cannon.

The vehemence of the PAS stance made it much easier for Dr Mahathir to tread the fine line between opposing terrorism and supporting a war unpopular among many Malays sympathetic to the plight of their Muslim brethren in Afghanistan - and gave him powerful new ammunition in his long-running campaign to paint PAS as a party of extremists determined to impose a hardline Islamic state in multi-ethnic Malaysia if given half a chance.

"Prior to September 11, PAS was on the ascendancy and challenging the pre-eminence of UMNO," says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre. "Now PAS is being seen increasingly as an extreme party. This could well be the end of the infatuation of the Malay middle class with PAS."

The charge of extremism is strongly denied by the PAS leadership, which also condemned the terrorist attacks in the US, and it is not supported by the experience of the states where PAS now rules and accepts the rights and freedoms of the minority Chinese and Indian communities.

"PAS is part of Barisan Alternatif and within BA we have agreed that the issue of an Islamic state does not arise," the leadership said. "Our objective is the continuance of parliamentary democracy, good governance, fighting against nepotism and cronyism. We accept that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state and that's why we agreed to create the Barisan Alternatif. We respect the processes of democracy."

Whether fairly or not, Dr Mahathir succeeded in making the mud stick while at the same time exploiting already emerging divisions within the opposition coalition over PAS's appeal to religious conservatism.

Less than a fortnight after the September 11 attacks, the DAP announced that it was quitting Barisan Alternatif, which was formed after the arrest of Mr Anwar in 1998 - a decision Lim Kit Siang says was sealed after PAS refused to formally declare that it would not seek to impose an Islamic state in the event that the coalition won power.

Simmering tensions were also set to boil over within Keadilan, the party founded by Anwar supporters and led by his wife, Dr Wan Azizah.

Early in October, Keadilan's deputy president and chief idealogue, Chandra Muzaffar, resigned his party post and attacked PAS for supporting the Taliban. Several other prominent party figures also announced that they were quitting, citing factional rivalry. That rivalry was paraded at Keadilan's annual conference last weekend after a leadership ballot in which four prominent members associated with the Islamic youth movement, ABIM, were dropped from the party's supreme council - apparently out of concern that associations with ABIM were tainting the party's secular image.

Mr Baginda believes Dr Mahathir has now re-established a political momentum that will carry him through to the elections in three years' time - provided he steers Malaysia through the current sharp economic downturn as successfully as he did after the 1997 financial crisis.

"People are looking at Dr Mahathir in a quite different light now," Mr Baginda says. "They are seeing him as someone who has put the interests of the state before personal considerations in his moves to clean up the party and they are recognising his ability to offer strong leadership in difficult times. I would argue that he has redeemed himself. I think he is a much better leader than he was a few years ago."

But Fadzil Mohamad Noor insists that Dr Mahathir's recent success in reasserting his authority will be short lived.

"His popularity may have risen recently, but the people still see so many issues of injustice in this country and they are very disturbed by what is happening. As long as these issues of injustice continue, especially the use of the Internal Security Act, and the case of Anwar Ibrahim is not settled justly, we know that the trend will continue and support among the Malay community for UMNO will decrease."