Nurul Izzah's Straits Times interview widens Anwar-Mahathir rift, analysts say

Analysts said Nurul Izzah Anwar's criticism of Tun Dr Mahathir was the clearest sign of a power struggle between his and Anwar Ibrahim's faction over the prime ministership. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

KUALA LUMPUR - A recent interview with The Straits Times, in which Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, publicly criticised the Mahathir Mohamad administration, has exposed a growing fissure among members of the ruling coalition, the Malay Mail said, citing analysts.

Experts interviewed by the Malaysian daily say Ms Izzah's blunt criticism of Tun Mahathir was the clearest sign of a power struggle between his and Datuk Seri Anwar's faction over the prime ministership, even though both leaders appear supportive of each other in public.

If left unaddressed, the infighting could culminate in the pro-Mahathir faction refusing to back Mr Anwar to be prime minister, thus triggering a political crisis, said one analyst.

"The big impact is you may not be able to see Anwar Ibrahim as the next PM," Dr Kartini Aboo Talib, political scientist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, told the Malay Mail.

"Because the next PM has to be the one who receives the most support from the alliance and the people. Izzah will reflect an Anwar who is in disagreement with Tun Mahathir - she is the symbol."

Dr Mahathir, whose five-year term would end in 2023, had originally promised to cede control to Mr Anwar in 2020 but has, in recent months, become more coy about the handover.

"I will step down when the time comes... but we have not fixed a date," he said in an interview with Reuters last week.

Ms Izzah, a three-term MP, is the most prominent leader of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition to be critical of the new government. She said the coalition is too slow on reforms, and that the patronage system that pervaded the former Barisan Nasional (BN) administration remains alive under the new leadership.

Her description of Dr Mahathir as "a former dictator" in the interview with the Singapore daily only added fuel to the fire.

Although Ms Izzah did not name anybody specifically in her allegations, her criticism is seemingly directed at Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's (PPBM) acceptance of Umno defectors, Malay Mail said.

Dr Mahathir founded PPBM, an all-Malay party, that has taken in close to a dozen former Umno MPs who defected just months after BN's defeat despite protests from its allies.

Soon after the defection, Ms Izzah announced her resignation from all government and positions in her father's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and that she would not seek re-election at the next general election, in a move seen as a protest against Dr Mahathir's leadership.

Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told the Malay Mail that the PKR leader's exit could also indicate an underlying frustration with party colleagues, including her own father, for seemingly pandering to the Mahathir faction.

"Nurul's continual rebellious antics should be viewed in light of seeing her dad being too 'soft' in engaging Dr Mahathir's 'salvos'," Dr Oh said.

Mr Anwar was initially critical of PPBM's embrace of Umno defectors but soon changed his tune. The Port Dickson MP, who is all set to take over the helm from Dr Mahathir in two years' time, has kept a conciliatory tone - at least in public - ever since.

When some PH leaders slammed Ms Izzah for venting against her own colleagues in the ST interview, Mr Anwar defended his daughter while also pledging support for Dr Mahathir.

Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar of Universiti Malaya said Ms Izzah's outburst was likely an appeal for the PH leadership to respect its more progressive base, but whether or not the protest resonates with the coalition's ideologically diverse voters remains to be seen.

"What we see here is a clash between idealism and pragmatism," he told the Malay Mail.

"It underpins not only the tug-of-war in PKR between the pro-Anwar faction and those with reservations about him being prime minister, but also the irreconcilable ideological schism within PH."

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