Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad once had Anwar Ibrahim jailed, now they’re forming an unlikely political alliance with a succession plan. (Reuters)
Almost as extraordinary as the shock election result in Malaysia is the unlikely rapprochement between Mahathir Mohamad and his former political nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim.
Once the most bitter of foes, Dr Mahathir has now pledged to seek a pardon for the man he’s accused of having jailed, and even allow him to take over the top job within two years.
But Dr Mahathir has a habit of picking political proteges and then turning on them when they get in his way.
And as Malaysia enters uncharted political territory, there’s no knowing whether or for how long Dr Mahathir will keep his word to Mr Anwar.
Their newfound alliance is a stunning turnaround from the 1990s when — on the orders of Dr Mahathir and his government — Mr Anwar was arrested and jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy.
Mr Anwar always denied the charges and claimed he was a victim of a political conspiracy.
Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohammad met for the first time in 18 years in September 2016, when they took the Malaysian Government to court. (Supplied: Najwan Halimi)
A few years earlier Mr Anwar had been Dr Mahathir’s protege and deputy. He was widely expected to take over as prime minister once Dr Mahathir retired from politics.
But in 1998, after a clash over how to handle the Asian financial crisis and an ensuing power struggle, Mr Anwar was sacked over his calls for reform and an end to cronyism.
The following year he was sentenced to six years’ jail for corruption and banned from holding political office until 2008.
Later that year the government also had him charged with sodomy, accusing him of committing the act several years earlier with his family’s former driver.
After another trial in 2000 he was sentenced to a further nine years in jail, to be served after he’d completed the six-year sentence.
But after winning an appeal against the sodomy conviction he was released in 2004, soon after Dr Mahathir had stepped down from power.
Mr Anwar was suddenly the de facto head of the opposition party. In 2008 he led the opposition to its best electoral showing, by quadrupling its seats in the parliamentary election.
But his political career again unravelled, this time under the government of Najib Razak.
A 23-year-old political aide accused him of sodomising him.
After numerous delays Mr Anwar stood trial again in 2010. In 2012 he was acquitted of the charges, and vowed to campaign again to topple the government — now led by Mr Najib.
Najib Razak, who lost the election, was another former protege of Mahathir Mohammad. (Reuters: Olivia Harris)
Then in March 2014 prosecutors successfully appealed against his acquittal. Mr Anwar was jailed in early 2015 for five years, meaning he’s not eligible for release until 2020.
But by late 2016 — 18 years after Dr Mahathir had sacked his then deputy — the pair famously reunited in a court room, and vowed to work together to force Mr Najib from power.
The same year Dr Mahathir announced he was quitting the ruling coalition to form a new opposition, Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.
He has since said he was wrong to sack Mr Anwar, and that helping Mr Najib — another protege — to take over as prime minister was the “biggest mistake” of his life.
He has now pledged to have Mr Anwar released from jail next month, then pardoned, making him eligible to take the prime ministership. He has also promised to make Mr Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah her husband’s deputy.
But Dr Mahathir is a polarising figure, and despite the election result many voters remain suspicious of him because of his record for iron-fisted rule.
Who knows whether he will keep his promises, or whether the rapprochement with Mr Anwar will last.
Malaysian politics — and politicians — are notoriously fickle. Dr Mahathir has famously turned against those — including Mr Anwar and Mr Najib — who have stood in his way.
If he wants to stay in power, presumably he will.
Although at 92 years old, clearly there’s no chance Dr Mahathir will match his own previous record of ruling for 22 years.