Twin wins a shot in the arm for Umno

Former strongman Mahathir no longer has the cure

Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election. Dr Mahathir Mohamad (se
Sekinchan, Selangor, on June 11 campaigning for the opposition Parti Amanah Negara in the Sungai Besar by-election. Sekinchan is the biggest town in the Sungai Besar constituency. ST FILE PHOTO

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became the first former premier to campaign for the opposition in Malaysia, but crowds of just hundreds came to listen to the man who once seemed to have the country on a leash.

Thirteen years after he ended his 22-year rule, the penny has finally dropped.

Dr Mahathir is no longer the man whose scorn ended his successor Tun Abdullah Badawi's six years in power.

Even then, Dr Mahathir did not stump for the opposition.

But having switched camps in his bid to "Save Malaysia", as his anti-Najib movement is called, it has become clear that his influence looms larger in Umno's corridors of power than among the voters, most of whom became politically aware only after the 91-year-old had left office.

His bid over the past year to force Mr Najib to resign has attracted many former government figures, civil society giants and opposition leaders. But there was no clear consensus as to how things will change beyond having a new prime minister.

If the opposition gained from Dr Mahathir's endorsement, it also took damage from its own lack of clarity over its political direction, with no less than Anwar Ibrahim - its jailed prime ministerial candidate - admonishing his colleagues for allowing Dr Mahathir to hijack their efforts.

"Objectively, Dr Mahathir's legitimate role in Malaysia has been reduced, perhaps to writing books and giving his opinion as an elder statesman or guiding light. But he no longer commands, and cannot change things at his whim and fancy," said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun.

Even Mr Najib saw fit to mock the man who was once his mentor and helped him ascend to power.

"Tun Mahathir turned the elections into a referendum on my leadership... dishonourably smearing his own party with crude language and claiming to speak on behalf of the people. (But) they rejected Tun Mahathir's lies," the premier said after celebrating last Saturday's victories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Former strongman Mahathir no longer has the cure'. Print Edition | Subscribe