PHNOM PENH — Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim is facing a sexual assault complaint that could derail a succession already shrouded in doubt by the apparent reluctance of 94 year old leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad to hand over as promised.
Mr Anwar gave a statement to police on Thursday, promising “full cooperation” after 26 year old Muhammed Yusoff Rawther, a former researcher in Mr Anwar’s office, last week accused the heir-designate of making unwanted sexual advance, allegations that echo previous cases that saw Anwar jailed, including by Mahathir.
Mr Anwar had already denounced the claims as “baseless slander” and “politics at its worst,” aimed at torpedoing a handover lined up since Dr Mahathir, then 92, won a sensational election victory in May 2018.
When Dr Mahathir became Malaysia’s prime minister for the second time he was adamant that his return to politics would be short-lived: not only would he step down after two years, he would hand power to his one time protégé who became a bitter foe, 72-year old Mr Anwar.
However Dr Mahathir, the world’s oldest prime minister, is pleading to stay in the job at least until after Malaysia hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in November next year.
“Because Mahathir has not yet confirmed a handover date, Anwar supporters are assuming the worst,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion survey group.
Although Dr Mahathir said earlier this week that Anwar remained the heir-designate – despite the sexual assault allegations – last month he said that he had made “many mistakes” in appointing successors in the past, adding: “I don’t want to make another mistake this time.”
Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, which held its annual congress over the first weekend of December, and is one of four parties in Mahathir’s coalition, is being torn asunder by a leadership challenge led by Azmin Ali, 55, Malaysia’s economic affairs minister and the party’s deputy leader
Azmin was earlier this year embroiled in his own gay sex scandal when a video appeared on social media said to show him in bed with a man. Azmin said he was not in the footage, which supporters alleged was conjured up by the Anwar camp.
Mahathir, whose first spell as prime minister lasted from 1981-2003, campaigned in last year’s election on ending corruption and renegotiating pricey rail and port infrastructure deals with China, Malaysia’s biggest trading partner – work he insists remains unfinished.
“The moment he names the handover date, he becomes a lame duck,” said Ibrahim Suffian.
During his earlier post-2003 retirement, Mahathir remained outspoken and influential in the nomination of successors. Last month Mahathir conceded he made “many mistakes” in appointing successors, adding “I don’t want to make another mistake this time.”
Mahathir roared back into politics in 2015, alleging that successor Najib Razak was looting public money. Najib was arrested shortly after losing the May 2018 elections to Mahathir and this month testified for the first time in a series of multi-billion dollar corruption trials.
While Anwar and Mahathir are on the same side for now, they have a famously stormy history. Anwar was finance minister during Mahathir’s long first run as prime minister, before the two fell out in the 1990’s.
Anwar then led what became years of street protests seeking electoral reforms, as well as spending around a decade in jail on charges of corruption and sodomy, the latter still a crime in Malaysia due to laws inherited from British rule.
While Malaysia is a major electronics manufacturer, tourist destination and gas exporter, with a GDP per head approaching those of Poland and Croatia, rising living costs are leaving voters disgruntled. “Macro growth numbers are decent but wages are not rising,” said Ibrahim Suffian.
The government has not lived up to some pre-election promises, including to ditch an unpopular sales tax. “The slowness of reform policies needs to be overcome,” said Ooi Kee Beng, executive director The Penang Institute.
Voter anger saw Mahathir’s candidate suffer a heavy by-election defeat last month, a result that did not seem to faze the still-sprightly nonagenarian but which Ooi Kee Beng described as “a wake-up call to the government.”
Though the loss prompted renewed calls for a handover date to be announced, Anwar declined to issue any ultimatums, while Mahathir said again on December 10 that he would hand over leadership to Anwar sometime after next November.