If the opposition triumphs at the next general election, due in a year, Malaysians will likely see Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad hand power over to erstwhile nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, two decades after sacking the jailed opposition icon as his deputy.
Dr Mahathir was declared Pakatan Harapan's (PH) chairman at a post-midnight press conference last Friday, during which he announced that a new premier would seek Anwar's release and install him as the "eighth PM" should the opposition pact end Barisan Nasional's uninterrupted six-decade rule.
Factions across the disparate four-party PH coalition acknowledge behind closed doors that Dr Mahathir is their best bet for "PM7", sources told The Straits Times.
But the decision has not been formalised as they foresee potential spanners thrown into the works - chief of which is the looming government probe into billions allegedly lost by the central bank in the 1990s when Dr Mahathir was in power and Anwar was finance minister.
One PH leader said: "There are strategic reasons not to make an announcement yet and we also want to keep Barisan guessing when they plan their attacks on us."
The Umno-led government immediately attacked Dr Mahathir's appointment at the weekend, a swift offensive which observers said was a response to the threat it posed against their grip on the crucial Malay majority.
TIME FOR CHANGE
Mahathir and Anwar represent a golden age. With Najib sinking so low amid his scandals, we have a groundswell for change.
DAP POLITICAL EDUCATION DIRECTOR LIEW CHIN TONG, referring largely to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy that saw the Premier being forced to fend off claims that some US$700 million (S$957 million) of public funds were deposited in his accounts.
Parti Amanah Negara's strategy director Dzulkefly Ahmad told The Straits Times "we all know his influence but we don't even know if Mahathir is contesting yet" in polls that could be called as soon as October.
The PH alliance is made up of Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Amanah, a group of rebels that splintered from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) after the latter parted ways with its former opposition colleagues in 2015.
"I am equivalent to Prime Minister Najib Razak... He's the top dog (in government)... In the hierarchy in Pakatan, I'm a top dog there," Dr Mahathir said on Tuesday.
The 92-year old politician was premier for 22 years until 2003.
Anwar is 69.
Other candidates vying to be Malaysia's first prime minister outside of the dominant Umno have dim prospects now as the two heavyweights revive a partnership that saw Malaysia enjoy an unprecedented decade of prosperity until Anwar's fall from grace. The economy grew by an average of 9.3 per cent a year between 1988 and 1997, during which modern icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers and Kuala Lumpur International Airport were erected.
"Mahathir and Anwar represent a golden age. With Najib sinking so low amid his scandals, we have a groundswell for change," said DAP political education director Liew Chin Tong, referring largely to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy that saw the premier being forced to fend off claims that some US$700 million (S$957 million) of public funds were deposited in his accounts.
Possible steps to make Anwar prime minister
If Pakatan Harapan (PH) wins federal power, here are the steps it can take to make Anwar Ibrahim Malaysia's eighth prime minister. (Datuk Seri Najib Razak is the sixth PM.)
•PH forms the government with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad likely as the seventh prime minister.
•Anwar's release from a sodomy conviction will be sought. It is unlikely that he can challenge the conviction in court, having already attempted a review of the apex Federal Court's verdict.
•According to Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Rafizi Ramli, the Malaysian government's chief secretary can apply for a royal pardon. While the King has absolute discretion in granting pardons and can dispense with the findings of the Pardons Board, he has rarely opposed the government's advice.
•Malaysians can also petition the ruler; Anwar was himself given permission in January to appeal at the Federal Court against the Pardons Board's rejection of his own request for a royal pardon. Alternatively, the King can decide on a pardon independently. Previously, some monarchs have granted pardons on their birthdays or installations.
•If the conviction is cancelled legally, including via a pardon, Anwar will not have to serve a five-year ban from elections. A sitting MP can vacate his or her seat and Anwar can then contest in the by-election.
•But it is unclear if PH is in agreement on this as Dr Mahathir has said that the seventh premier will not be an interim appointment. Anwar may have to wait for the next general election.
Sources said DAP and Amanah fully back Dr Mahathir as the country's next prime minister. PKR was split between those who were amenable and those insistent on Anwar, a choice which implicitly meant his wife, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, would take the post while seeking his release from jail over a sodomy charge.
But other PH leaders were cool to Dr Wan Azizah's candidacy after Anwar's supporters faced recent criticism for focusing too heavily on his release instead of public issues. Anwar's camp was placated after Dr Mahathir promised to announce him as "PM8".
PH leaders told The Straits Times that as chairman, Dr Mahathir could decide to throw his weight behind PPBM president Muhyiddin Yassin or PKR deputy president Azmin Ali - both of whom were considered not popular enough at the moment - to lead the country, if the political situation warranted.
Said a top PKR leader: "Dr Mahathir wants Najib out at all cost. Not announcing himself as PM7 means he still holds a trump card to negotiate any future circumstance."