KUALA LUMPUR: Bitter foes Mahathir Mohamad and his estranged protégé Anwar Ibrahim met for the first time in 18 years Monday, underscoring shifting political alliances caused by a corruption scandal plaguing Malaysia’s current leader.
Mahathir inflamed social media with a show of support at a court appearance by Anwar, the former opposition leader jailed last year following a controversial sodomy conviction — the same charge Mahathir hurled at him in 1998.
The face-to-face encounter was the first since their stormy 1998 rift, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said on Facebook.
Images of the political heavyweights smiling and shaking hands were shared widely online, highlighting the political flux caused by outrage over scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib is accused of involvement in looting billions of dollars in state money. He denies the charge and has cracked down in response.
Mahathir, who imposed his will on Malaysia for 22 years as prime minister before retiring in 2003, has led calls for Najib’s arrest.
Any potential rapprochement between the cagey Mahathir and the charismatic Anwar — whose rivalry continues to reverberate in Malaysian politics — could be a game-changer.
Anwar was heir apparent to Mahathir until he was sacked in 1998 by his boss over political differences, an episode that deeply divided the country.
Charged with sodomy and corruption, Anwar was jailed six years, but emerged to revitalise the previously ineffectual opposition until he was jailed again in 2015 by Najib’s government.
Mahathir played down Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t know about friends, but I know I talked to him,” Mahathir said, chuckling, when reporters asked after the encounter whether the two were friendly again.
“I met him and had a long chat with him about what he was doing,” he added, while denying they had “made peace.”
Mahathir said he was merely showing support for a legal challenge launched by Anwar against a draconian new security law rammed through last year by Najib.
‘Now I’ve seen everything’
But the encounter quickly went viral in politics-obsessed Malaysia.
“Now I think I have seen everything,” Eric Paulsen of activist group Lawyers for Liberty said in tweeting an image of the handshake.
It remains to be seen whether a politically significant détente can be achieved given the baggage between the two men.
The formidable opposition alliance that Anwar forged has crumbled amid infighting since his jailing.
Najib, meanwhile, has tightened his grip on the country and used the powerful ruling coalition’s deep pockets and pervasive control to win recent by-elections.
The next general election must be held by mid-2018.
However, leading independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian called the handshake “a big deal” and a potentially significant sign that Mahathir was ready to link up with the opposition he once fiercely battled.
“The fundamental problem for the opposition was that Mahathir and Anwar couldn’t get along,” Ibrahim said.
“Their shaking hands means their interests have converged.”
Anwar has condemned both of his convictions — on charges of sodomising other men — as false and politically motivated. Sodomy is illegal in the Muslim-majority country.
Despite Najib’s graft denials, the US Justice Department filed lawsuits in July alleging a massive international conspiracy by Najib relatives and associates to steal billions from Malaysian state fund 1MDB.
The suits effectively accused Najib as well, while not naming him outright.
Mahathir came out of political retirement to attack Najib over 1MDB, and is now spearheading formation of a new party to oppose him.
But critics accuse him of hypocrisy, saying he also tolerated corruption and repressed dissent in his day. AFP