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Interview

Mahathir eyes new party as Malaysia snap polls loom, son says

Mukhriz Mahathir argues Najib conviction 'doesn't benefit' PM Muhyiddin

Front row, from left: Muhyiddin Yassin, Mahathir Mohamad and Mukhriz Mahathir are seen in 2018, when they were still on the same side.   ? Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is keeping all options open when it comes to his political future, including establishing a new party or joining an existing opposition group, the veteran leader's son Mukhriz Mahathir told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

The father, son and four other parliamentarians are currently partyless after they were fired from the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) by its president, current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. "We do not agree with the unlawful sackings and we have challenged it in court, but we are already charting our plans in case the court does not rule in our favor," Mukhriz said.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court is expected to hear the 95-year-old Mahathir's case on Aug. 7.

Malaysian politics have been hit with two bombshells in the span of a week -- the government's $3.9 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs in exchange for dropping criminal charges related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal, and former Prime Minister Najib Razak's conviction on multiple charges connected to the same fund. How these developments affect the fortunes of Muhyiddin, who pushed Mahathir out of office earlier this year in a bitter power tussle, remains to be seen.

"My take is that Muhyiddin himself doesn't benefit no matter the outcome of Najib's verdict," Mukhriz told Nikkei. "If Najib had been acquitted, Muhyiddin would have been blamed for letting him off. If convicted as has happened, some in UMNO may consider this a betrayal on Muhyiddin's part," he added, referring to Najib's United Malays National Organization, from which Muyhiddin draws vital support in parliament.

Mukhriz said that either way, Muhyiddin's government "is in an unenviable and precarious situation."

Meanwhile, the opposition is weighing its next moves.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves a Kuala Lumpur courthouse after posting bail on July 29, following his conviction the previous day.   © Getty Images

Mukhriz, 55, said the six politicians fired from Bersatu are aware that they cannot go far without a political party behind them, especially in the event of a snap election -- widely expected to take place sometime in the next nine months.

The Sabah Heritage Party, a regional group, has openly extended invitations to the six. Another option might be to apply for direct membership in the Alliance of Hope coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's protege turned rival turned uncomfortable ally.

But Mukhriz, the only one of Mahathir's seven sons and daughters active in politics, questioned whether Anwar is the right man to lead the opposition back to victory.

Anwar does not enjoy the support of ethnic Malays, especially from rural areas, he said. Many see Anwar as a "very liberal person," Mukhriz said, arguing this could be detrimental to the opposition's chances in a largely conservative Muslim country.

In Malaysia's complicated web of alliances and racially tinged politics, Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Mukhriz had banded together in 2016 to establish Bersatu and overthrow the Najib-led government. In the May 2018 election, Bersatu, together with the Alliance of Hope, accomplished that mission and Mahathir became prime minister.

Mahathir suggested he would transfer power to Anwar in about two years but left the timing vague. Then, this past February, an internal coup prompted his resignation, and Muhyiddin emerged as prime minister with backing from a party they had all fought to oust, Najib's UMNO, and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

If Mahathir and the others decide to form a new party, Mukhriz said it would be in the same Malays-only mold as Bersatu. "I believe that the Malays are still underserved in this country," he said. "They supported Bersatu because it was different, then, from UMNO and PAS. But now Muhyiddin is running the government with them, abandoning basic principles."

With the government resting on a razor-thin majority, Mahathir and other opposition players have been hatching plans in recent weeks in case they can gather the numbers to topple Muhyiddin. Mahathir picked Shafie Apdal, president of the Sabah Heritage Party, as his prime minister candidate of choice.

Mukhriz's name was put forward as a candidate for deputy prime minister, along with Anwar. But as Anwar has long had his eye on the nation's top job -- and come tantalizingly close twice -- he and his People's Justice Party were against the proposal.

Mahathir's rationale for naming Shafie was that he was the leader of a Muslim party, while Anwar heads a multiracial party.

"When I go down to the ground, I can sense people's sentiment, which we will have to take into account," Mukhriz said. The rural people are willing to work with [Anwar] but they want a leader like Mahathir to be behind him."

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