Mahathir campaigns against Umno

Mahathir Mohamad in his office on the 86th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Source: Wikimedia

Ex-Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad is campaigning against his old party, seeking to turn voters against Prime Minister Najib Razak in two by-elections next week.

Mahathir, who ran the federation for 22 years until he retired in 2003, left the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) in protest at Najib’s controversial rule.

He joined old adversaries in the Pakatan Harapan alliance to force his former protégé from office.

“If the people want to see this country being robbed by the PM, who has now passed a law that makes him stronger than even the Agong [king]… If that’s what the people want, they’ll get what they deserve,” Mahathir, 90, said from the campaign trail.

Najib denies allegations that the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) state fund channelled some US$1 billion into his bank account.

The Barisan Nasional coalition, of which Umno is the major partner, is losing support from ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, leaving Najib to bolster his Muslim Malay backing.

In May, MPs started debating a controversial bill submitted by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which would introduce “hudud”, the Islamic penal code that allows amputation and stoning.

“They were not able to make any progress with their hudud laws during my time,” Mahathir said.

“I didn’t tell them that this Islam is out of date or anything like that. I said Islam stresses justice, and what you are doing is to create injustice, therefore it is wrong. But when I stepped down, they brought it up again,” he said.

The constituencies being contested on June 18 are largely ethnic Malay with little opposition support.

The Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-elections will point to Umno’s chances in the 2018 general election.

Mahathir visited Sungai Besar on the Malaysian Peninsula’s west coast calling on voters to back the newly formed National Trust Party, known as Amanah.

“It doesn’t matter what party, these are parties for the people against Najib because he has committed a lot of corruption, including misappropriating up to 50 billion ringgit [US$12 billion] that cannot be explained,” Mahathir said.

Najib chaired the 1MDB advisory board until recently.

Oh Ei Sun of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies said Umno and PAS had insufficient votes to send the hudud bill through parliament, arguing that the issue was probably meant to distract Malay voters from 1MDB.

He has also built bridges with Islamist hardliners in PAS, the second-largest ethnic Malay party.

“Umno is trying to use the Islamic card to build a relationship with PAS,” said Professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute.