Bitter rivals Mahathir and Anwar join forces in bid to oust Malaysian PM Najib

Bangkok: Malaysia’s 92-year-old former prime minster Mahathir Mohamad will lead an opposition coalition into one of his country’s most bitterly fought elections since independence, challenging the ruling party he led for 22 years.

In a stunning turnaround, Mahathir has agreed to seek a royal pardon for jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and to allow him to replace him as prime minister if he topples the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which has formed every government since 1957.

A feud between Mahathir and Anwar shaped Malaysia’s political landscape for almost two decades.

But the pair are now seen as the biggest threat for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is engulfed in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal.

Mahathir, who declared Anwar unfit for office after the two had a bitter falling out in the 1990s, told opposition delegates “it is not easy for me to destroy the party that I have loved for 60 years” .

Prison authorities have announced that Anwar, who is serving a five-year jail sentence on politically-motivated sodomy charges, is set for early release on June 8 because of good behaviour.

Charismatic and popular, Anwar would inject fresh energy into the opposition’s campaign if he is released by the time Malaysians go to the polls that have to be called before August, though his conviction bans him from running for elected office for five years.

Fighting for his political life Najib, 64, could call a snap election, possibly within weeks, which analysts say he is favourite to win because the large Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) isn’t part of the opposition coalition.

PAS’s presence as a separate opposition could help UMNO in ethnic Malay Muslim heartland districts.

The four-party opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition has also named Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail as its candidate for deputy prime minister.

Announcing the nominations Pakatan’s secretary general Saifuddin Abdullah described Mahathir and Anwar as two “statesmen” cooperating to complete their mission.

Victory would see Mahathir become the world’s oldest leader.

Saifuddin said a new government would immediately begin legal processes to obtain a royal pardon so Anwar could play a role in the federal government and subsequently become prime minister.

Under Anwar’s leadership opposition parties won the popular vote at elections in 2013 but a gerrymandered system of voting favouring rural Malays prevented the government’s defeat.

Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy in the 1990s.

Anwar was then subjected to years of political persecution that included a fierce beating and years in jail on trumped up charges.

During 22 years in power, Mahathir clashed with successive n leaders from both sides of politics, once declaring them to be too “pale of skin” to engage in Asia.

His antagonism shut out of key Asian forums and sabotaged diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Last year Mahathir lashed out again at , accusing Canberra of turning a blind eye to corruption in the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) which Najib set-up and oversaw through an advisory board.

Almost $1 billion was transferred into Najib’s personal bank accounts and investigations are underway in at least five countries into how billions of dollars have allegedly gone missing from the fund.

Najib, 64, has denied any wrongdoing.

Anwar has also in the past criticised for failing to speak up on his behalf as he endured years after political persecution, including from Mahathir, who sacked him as his deputy prime minister in the 1990s.

Despite the 1MDB scandal Najib has strengthened his power in UMNO through a system of money politics and patronage, as he used state agencies to silence his critics and harass independent media outlets.

Analysts say that with Anwar in jail Mahathir has become the person most feared by the 13-party ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

He was an authoritarian leader who ruled during a “golden era” of unprecedented period of growth .

Analysts say Mahathir’s stature and track record ranks higher than Najib in some of UMNO’s core strongholds.

But he also has a negative image among some Muslims in the predominantly Islamic country, they say.

In a speech read out by his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar at Pakatan’s convention on Sunday, Anwar said he accepted the decision of the coalition’s presidential council to name Mahathir as its candidate for prime minister.

“I urge my friends to focus on the principles of the struggle we started a decade ago,” he said.

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