The Anwar-Najib succession saga has perhaps diverted attention from some of the legitimate undercurrents of Badawi’s potential to resurrect himself politically between now and his departure; whenever that may be. I believe Badawi needs a real boogeyman – now more than ever, and it is neither one of his aforementioned competitors. It is, instead, the legacy of his predecessor that Badawi must confront.
You will recall that it became fairly obvious not long into Badawi’s reign that once the ex-dictator Mahathir’s feathers got ruffled and he felt slighted and scorned by Badawi, Mahathir launched into some - at times self-damaging and embarrassing - attacks on Badawi’s leadership. While there has been at least one direct ‘pow-wow’ between the two to try and bury the hatchet, it’s clear that there is no way this hatchet is getting buried any time soon. But the Badawi strategy did not change, which is certainly not about ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ because in this situation, metaphorically speaking, the dog has been barking for some time. Instead, Badawi’s approach has been to basically publicly ignore his predecessor’s pot-shots and swipes, much like one might ignore a ‘barking dog’ and not give it the affirmation it seeks.
Is this the best way for Badawi to continue to deal with one of his most visible nemesis? To be sure, while there have been setbacks, there is a case to be made that Badawi’s approach to handling the pressure from Mahathir has thus far partially worked for him. One might argue that Mahathir has gone from being a prominent voice in UMNO to a voice in the wilderness outside UMNO. This can only be, in the short-run, a good development for Badawi. Of course we cannot underestimate the fact that there is a notable faction of Mahathir loyalists who perhaps lament the exit of their former dictator from the UMNO establishment. One might even argue that Mahathir has again overplayed his hand – revealing just how wrong he was about his own ‘sway’ within UMNO [not to mention exposing his over-exaggerated sense of self-importance] that the dominos did not come tumbling down through his resignation from UMNO. Incidentally, Badawi’s largely non-confrontational approach toward Mahathir thus far also may be having the added benefit of not further alienating the Mahathir loyalist faction.
Many were too quick to write Badawi’s political obituary following 8/3, and it obviously remains to be seen if he can survive the next UMNO general assembly. However, one thing is clear: Mahathir has ostensibly played his trump card and Badawi is still ticking along. If Mahathir’s motive was to trigger an earthquake within UMNO, and to provoke an instant crisis through a mass defection and resignation of its members, he has not succeeded; you could say he’s failed miserably and in a truly grand way. Mahathir has arguably never been more irrelevant than he is now. [Mind you, I’m not suggesting Mahathir has become inconsequential – especially as a disruptive force; just that he’s never been more marginal to the centre of power than he is now.]
So, if the Badawi strategy of ignoring Mahathir seems to be working, why not – you ask – let the ‘barking dog’ continue and just ignore it? I’ve always felt Badawi would be well-served to take a more confident and assertive approach to dealing with Mahathir and some of the more visible abuses of the former dictator. To stem the tide of the fast growing disenchantment with his BN coalition will understandably be a key to Badawi’s survival. To do so, his government must not only deliver on fundamental reforms, it must also abandon the continued arrogant style of dictating that was put in place during Mahathir’s reign. To deliver on reforming much that is wrong with the way BN has governed, Badawi must not only implement changes that may rub Mahathir the wrong way, he can further help his credibility by holding those responsible for abuses and wrong-doing accountable for their actions. This means initiating a process of re-establishing the government’s credibility by having a thorough and transparent series of reforms. For starters, there needs to be credible investigation and reform of the judiciary and an independent and constitutional review of the ISA. These measures will send a powerful signal of Badawi’s commitment to addressing apparent past misdeeds. The second part of this equation is where we get back to Mahathir. It is critical that Badawi re-establish his reputation - and that of his government - by ensuring that no stone be left unturned. Like others, Mahathir must also be called to account for his actions.
Sure, there are down sides to such an approach. Doing so could possibly trigger a serious internal power struggle within UMNO and further undermine his position. But it is necessary. My assessment is it is worth it to Badawi; otherwise he will simply see the erosion of public confidence in the regime accelerate further. Indeed, for him to stand any chance of surviving - and keeping BN somewhat credible - for the duration, nothing short of distancing himself – and I mean in a bold way – from all the baggage that defined Mahathirism and Mahathir’s regime will suffice. Otherwise, he simply risks further loss of any credibility he and his regime has left with the general public. And losing that public confidence will only severely erode what remains of his support within UMNO. In other words, it would spell the end of Badawi.
Going after the insidious and much despised culture of cronyism through serious investigations of the judiciary and other government institutions – and to be able to politically tie that baggage to Mahathir’s legacy – would be a political coup for Badawi. He needs Mahathir now, more than ever, as a punching bag to have, in order to salvage himself and his government. The old politics of whipping up the UMNO base by indulging in racial politics, the rhetoric of Malay supremacy and such identity politics will not cut it this time. The public has seen that trick once too often.
Either way, it’s evident that the stakes are high, but 8/3 has made it imperative that to not directly confront the past – and Mahathir’s legacy - will simply erode Badawi’s popularity. Indeed, he will pay the ultimate political price for Mahathir’s debacles. So yes, from a purely Machiavellian stance, Badawi would be better served to set up Mahathirism and Mahathir as the boogeyman, while steering clear of the old fashion UMNO-style racial politics or trying to pin Anwar down. Pandering to the racists within UMNO may get them into a frenzy, but that will only further confirm for the rest of the country that UMNO [and by extension, the component parties of BN who remain committed to an UMNO led coalition] is all the more out of touch with reality. And going after Anwar – if in fact there is a strategy to personally undermine him and, therefore, destroy his political comeback – will only alienate a suspicious public all the more and undermine Badawi even further.
So in my view, Badawi has two likely options for the boogeyman he needs. One is an illusion and the other real. He could opt for the illusion – the usual phantom ‘enemies’ of Malay supremacy, or the real: the corrosive Mahathirism and his legacy. In my view, there are no other likely choices. [Certainly there isn’t the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Jewish conspiracy, or the foreign imperialists to exploit as convenient scapegoats for the government’s woes this time around.] The former option – of targeting the phantom enemies of Malay supremacy - will appeal to the racists, xenophobic, and parochial within UMNO who always fall for and thrive on that kind of rhetoric; which incidentally, during his heyday, Mahathir used to thoroughly exploit for his own political ends. But it would simply show that this regime is no better than the past one.
The latter strategy for Badawi, of going after the cronyism, arrogance and disregard for the public interest that was normalised under Mahathir’s regime, will provide some hope and improve Badawi’s chances for salvaging himself and his government’s hold on power and making the Anwar-Najib sideshow exactly that. But of course there are no guarantees. After all, he was a part of that system as one of Mahathir’s lieutenants [Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!].
No doubt there would be no love lost between them if Badawi does get more aggressive about dealing with the debilitating Mahathir legacy. Besides, I doubt if there’s any love left between the two.
Will Badawi make the 'barking dog' and his legacy the culprit – and the real boogeyman – of the neighbourhood; the one responsible for deteriorating the neighbourhood? Clearly, his future, and that of the neighbourhood, is at stake.
But does Badawi have the stomach for it?