Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, has denied reports that he is trying to topple current Prime Minister Najib Razak. To be clear, it is highly unlikely that any sort of military coup or anything similar would break out in Malaysia. Mahathir, however, still holds a lot of political clout and some have been speculating that he is working behind the scenes to undermine Najib.
Najib managed to retain leadership of the UMNO party in the fall of 2013, following losses in the 2013 elections. The last time a prime minister suffered a major setback, Abdullah Badawi, he was forced from power and replaced by Najib. Some speculated that following the last election, Najib himself would be forced from power, but polls showed that he was far more popular than his party. Najib’s supporters had a strong argument that if anything, Najib was propping the Barisan Coalition up.
Throughout the course of the elections and the following party elections, many speculated that Mahathir would attempt to push Najib from power, and possibly install one his sons as the next Prime Minister. Following the elections, however, Najib was able to retain power but that has not stopped the rumor mill from spinning.
Potential power struggles founded in racial relations
While there is no direct evidence supporting the rumor that Mahathir is trying to oust Najib, he has been critical of the Prime Minister in the past. Najib is widely seen as a moderate, and throughout his first term, he worked to slowly wind down the race-based affirmative action policies that heavily favor Malays.
Mahathir has been particularly critical of Najib’s moderate policies. When Mahathir was in power, he shifted tremendous amounts of resources to the Malay community, but as he himself acknowledged, the results were less than perfect.
Critics of the affirmative action policy argue that such policies have failed to create an independent and economically vibrant Malay community. Instead, they created a large welfare state and a large group of people now dependent of government assistance. Mahathir himself has made statements acknowledging that such views may be at least partially correct.
With Najib largely rejecting the race-based policies that Mahathir supported, many believe that Mahathir may attempt to install Malay “ultras” in power. Even if Mahathir doesn’t push for Najib’s removal, some argue that Najib’s turn towards more race based preferences could be a sign that Mahathir is exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on Najib.
Mahathir shifts blame to the Opposition
Mahathir now claims that it is the Opposition who is trying to overthrow Najib. His statements on Bernama Radio24 were rather vague, so it remains unknown if he was acknowledging that the Opposition was trying to defeat Barisan Nasional in elections, or if they might try other illegal methods.
PKR Information Chief Rafizi Ramli of the Opposition party has previously accused Mahathir of trying to overthrow Najib. According to Mr. Ramli, Mahathir wants to install “ultras”, or Malay radicals, in power. While Mr. Ramli has offered little supporting evidence, racial tensions have been rising in Malaysia in recent months.
Racial tensions continue to rise
Regardless of whether or not Mahathir is trying to topple Najib, it is becoming clear that racial tensions are continuing to escalate. The majority of Malaysia’s citizens are Malays, who are ethnic Muslims who originated in the region and have been present in Malaysia for centuries. About a quarter of the population is made up of Chinese, who were brought into Malaysia in the 19th and 20th century by the British to run businesses. The Chinese largely control the economy.
If infighting does break out within Barisan Nasional, the biggest winner would probably be the Opposition Party. If more radical elements of Barisan Nasional seize power, moderates within the coalition may be pushed into the fold of the Opposition. And this shift might be enough for the Opposition to deliver a victory in the next elections.