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Kuala Lumpur is now a city awash in all sorts of meetings, press conferences and political manoeuvring. Plots are being hatched and dispatched. Deals are being made and unmade. Alliances are shifting, loyalties are up for sale. There are no permanent friends in this melee, only permanent self-interests; no noble intentions, just selfish ambitions.

In many ways, it’s an epic battle: one man (Dr Mahathir Mohamad, of course) against the rest of the world. Feigning old age, he says he wants only to serve the people while assuring everyone that it won’t be forever. He doesn’t want to lead Pakatan Harapan into the next election (never mind that nobody wants that); he just wants his old seat in Putrajaya back for the next couple of years.

To this end, he has been hard at work trying to gnaw away at Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s slender majority in parliament. He knows how fickle and utterly devoid of principles many of these politicians are. They are all looking out for their own interests. If he can create sufficient doubt about Muhyiddin’s prospects for survival, enough of them might be tempted to at least think about switching sides again. It’s a high stakes psywar, to say the least.

Interestingly, while he is going out of his way to tempt pro-Perikatan Nasional (PN) parliamentarians to cross back, he seems to be making no move to mend fences with Anwar Ibrahim who heads one of the biggest parties in PH. If Mahathir’s quest to return to power at the head of a PH coalition is to succeed, he will certainly need the support of PKR. And yet, he continues to remain hostile to Anwar.

Anwar has thus far declined to attend PH events chaired by Mahathir. In response to queries, Anwar said he did not attend because it was not an “official PH event.” That’s another way of saying that Mahathir has no business chairing PH events since he is no longer head of PH.

When asked about Anwar’s absence, Mahathir, in his usual mordacious manner, said, “As far as I’m concerned I have no problems with Anwar.” Continuing, he said, “Maybe, he has problems with me. But I don’t know. You have to ask him.”  No problems with Anwar? After castigating him on numerous occasions as weak, impatient, power crazy, morally compromised and not sufficiently committed to the Malay agenda?

Clearly, after the way Mahathir conspired to block him, Anwar is in no mood to go along with Mahathir’s games. He is leader of the opposition now (though you’d never know it from his actions thus far) and he doesn’t seem inclined to play second fiddle to a man whose political survival now depends upon the very leaders he was willing to betray in pursuit of his great game.

In the meantime, Amanah and DAP appear to be like drowning men clutching at straws.  They sit like zombies beside Mahathir and then rush off to attend Pakatan Harapan council meetings with Anwar in a Sisyphean endeavour to keep alive their hopes of returning to Putrajaya.

The DAP wants everyone in PH to put aside their differences and focus on bringing down the PN government. It is simply not a realistic option at this stage. Of course, there is a great deal of disappointment and anger that PN has stolen the popular mandate and is now proceeding to undo much of the reforms that were initiated in the 18 months of PH rule. But there is also a great deal of angst towards Mahathir for his role in the collapse of the PH government. Many have lost confidence in him and are no longer willing to accept his leadership. Whatever it is, it’s hard to fathom why the DAP still remains loyal to Mahathir despite all the evidence that he tried to do them in.

At the end of the day, one has to wonder how Pakatan Harapan is ever going to dislodge Muhyiddin from Putrajaya if it cannot even agree who its leader is. And even if they somehow manage to stumble back to Putrajaya under Mahathir’s leadership, the old unresolved issues will make PH as unstable and unsustainable as the coalition it would replace.

In any case, even if Mahathir manages to cobble together a slim majority, it is by no means a certainty that the PN administration will fall. Removing a sitting prime minister is an almost impossible task unless the government fails to pass the next budget (sometime in October). Even then, Muhyiddin still has the option – the nuclear option – of calling for a snap election. Few, and certainly not Mahathir, would relish the prospects of fresh elections.

What then is the purpose of all Mahathir’s striving? Could he simply be seeking to exert enough pressure on Muhyiddin to force him to accept some kind of compromise? After all, aside from differences over how to deal with Najib (and some of the others charged with corruption), there are no fundamental differences between Mahathir, Muhyiddin and most UMNO-PAS leaders. They all want a Malay unity government; they all want to keep Anwar from becoming prime minister and they all dislike the DAP. They have, in fact, more in common than not.

While everyone is focused on the obvious, it is not impossible that Mahathir may be quietly working to pull a very different rabbit out of the hat, deftly leveraging the hopes and fears of friend and foe alike to achieve his own objectives. After all, he is not known as the Machiavelli of Malaysian politics for nothing.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 9th June 2020]