On July 6, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad caused a stir when he reportedly told The Guardian newspaper that he supports the currently jailed Anwar Ibrahim's bid to become prime minister.
Anwar, who was deputy prime minister when he was sacked in 1998 by Dr Mahathir, should be released to contest the coming general election, he said. The opposition alliance would, if it won power, immediately seek a royal pardon to allow Anwar to re-enter politics.
"In which case he would be able to participate in politics and become PM. I can have no objection to that," Dr Mahathir said in the interview in London. He also said Anwar was a victim of a political vendetta, alluding perhaps to reports of high-level collusion that led to his second jailing in 2015.
Two days after the Guardian interview, Malaysian newspaper The Star ran a counter story in which it also quoted Dr Mahathir as denying what he said in the Guardian interview. The Star report was headlined rather sensationally: "Dr M denies backing Anwar, says he can't be PM from jail."
But headline aside, The Star report quoted Dr Mahathir as saying that "if the opposition won the next general election, it would appoint someone as the country's seventh prime minister and this person would then work to release Anwar". Dr Mahathir added: "There has to be an interim prime minister. There is no way he (Anwar) can become PM from jail because he cannot compete (in the elections)."
In the early hours of yesterday, the opposition coalition called a joint press conference to announce a new leadership line-up. It sealed the growing Mahathir-Anwar alliance and capped the ground-moving reconciliation between the two former foes. It was a sensitively arranged "functional leadership" of compromise and mutual accommodation by all parties: Anwar was declared Ketua Umum or "de facto leader" of Pakatan Harapan, Dr Mahathir the chairman, and Anwar's wife, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the president.
Significantly, Dr Mahathir announced that Anwar will be the eighth prime minister. An "interim PM", to be announced later, will seek a royal pardon for Anwar as soon as the new government is formed. No less significant is that the interim PM may well be Dr Mahathir, judging by the fact that he chaired the joint press conference, flanked by Dr Wan Azizah and the other party leaders.
And thus marked the rebirth of the Mahathir-Anwar alliance that was once so effective in the 1990s that it triggered major political changes - as well as a political conspiracy to end Anwar's rapid rise. Only this time, Anwar will eventually lead, with Dr Mahathir backing him, should the grand plan work.
For Anwar, there could be a few routes to the premiership that was once his for the taking in the 1990s before he was removed by Dr Mahathir. For one thing, he could either stand in a by-election in a seat to be vacated, possibly by Dr Wan Azizah. Or he could be appointed a senator as a step to taking office as prime minister.
A third scenario is that upon the granting of a royal pardon, Dr Mahathir as interim PM would appoint Anwar as senator so he could first become deputy prime minister. To become PM, Anwar must be elected as an MP as stipulated in the federal Constitution. This is where the by-election formula comes in.
The internal tussles over top positions and factional rumblings had been destabilising the opposition ahead of the elections. Closing ranks in the name of a higher calling - defeating Prime Minister Najib Razak at the ballot box - had become critical. The prospect of dethroning him is no longer a distant one, given the crisis threatening his position triggered by the 1MDB scandal.
Dr Mahathir has demonstrated once again that he remains shrewd and strategic in his moves despite his advancing age. He is single-minded and has been generating much buzz as he takes game-changing steps to achieve his ultimate goal of bringing down Datuk Seri Najib legitimately at the coming general election. He said in a blog post that he has made a U-turn on Umno because he has a mission to "destroy the demon" and in so doing, "found common ground with Anwar Ibrahim".
It all began three days after Sept 3, 2016 - the symbolically significant 18th anniversary of Anwar's sacking as deputy PM - when Dr Mahathir turned up in court to show support for his former protege in a case against the Najib government. It was a stunning ground-breaking move that ended nearly two decades of bitterness that split the Malay electorate and led to a series of power shifts.
A highlight has been Dr Mahathir joining the Anwar-led opposition, in yet another head-turning step. Suspicion of Dr Mahathir, however, remained deep; the opposition has never forgotten the autocratic rule it suffered when he was in power. Mr Najib has exploited this distrust by running down the Mahathir- Anwar reconciliation as doomed to fail.
Dr Mahathir's inability to express either an open apology to Anwar or unequivocal support for him as the ultimate leader that a divided Malaysia needs has not helped. That is about to change now that Dr Mahathir and Anwar have finally sealed their revived alliance in a new power-sharing partnership that reflects their decision to rise above party politics.
- The writer is Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.