Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — At the age of 92, Malaysia’s one-time strongman Mahathir Mohamad is again seeking the leadership, but this time at the helm of the opposition that he crushed while in power.
Mahathir was named the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate Sunday after weeks of infighting, in an extraordinary turnaround as his heirs in government face a massive financial scandal.
He will be the world’s oldest leader if the coalition backing him wins a general election due by August, although analysts believe this is unlikely.
The authoritarian leader known for his acid tongue ruled the country for 22 years until 2003, making him Malaysia’s longest-serving premier. He jailed opposition members without trial on security grounds in 1987 and was seen as an authoritarian figure who trampled over human rights.
Even in retirement, he could not resist sniping at his successors. When allegations emerged that huge sums were looted from a sovereign wealth fund set up by current Prime Minister Najib Razak, he broke from the ruling party and established a new political outfit to try and oust a man who was once his protege.
The US Justice Department alleges $4.5 billion was stolen from the investment vehicle, 1MDB, in a campaign of fraud and money-laundering. Najib denies any wrongdoing and has cracked down hard, purging critics from his government and curbing domestic investigations.
The most remarkable aspect of Mahathir’s return to frontline politics has been a rapprochement with his former nemesis and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a dramatic shift after the pair’s falling out dominated the political landscape for two decades.
Anwar was heir apparent to Mahathir until the premier sacked him in 1998 over political differences, and was then jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges.
After being released Anwar led the opposition to its best-ever showing in 2013 elections, but was imprisoned again in 2015 under Najib’s government. Anwar has condemned his convictions as politically motivated.
After Mahathir cut ties with ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), he sought to mend his broken relationship with Anwar, with the pair meeting in 2016 for the first time in 18 years.
His party, Bersatu, joined the main opposition coalition Pact of Hope, which includes Anwar’s party and many other former sworn enemies, and on Sunday he was endorsed as the grouping’s candidate at their convention.
If the opposition ousts the UMNO-led coalition which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, Mahathir’s position as premier is supposed to be temporary, with Anwar taking over once he is released from jail and has secured a royal pardon to overturn a ban on politics.