Father’s shadow behind Mahathir leadership bid

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 5:55am

The chief minister of the rural Malaysian state of Kedah has a familiar face, even if he lacks the charisma, provocative rhetoric and razor-sharp political skills of his famous father.

Mukhriz Mahathir is the youngest son of Malaysia's longest-serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, whose often authoritarian rule transformed the country's economy into a developing powerhouse while winning a reputation for cronyism and dubious "mega-projects".

Ten years after his father stepped down, Mukhriz has stepped into a battle for the soul of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) in a test of 88-year-old Mahathir senior's still-powerful influence over the party.

If Mukhriz succeeds in snaring a coveted Umno vice-presidential post this month, unseating one of three seasoned cabinet ministers, it would be seen as a further blow to the flagging reform agenda of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The ruling coalition's weak election victory in May undermined Najib's attempts to forge more inclusive policies in racially diverse Malaysia, empowering Umno conservatives who want to strengthen policies favouring majority ethnic Malays.

The elder Mahathir, who stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in power, has criticised Najib's reform efforts and remains a potent figure through his towering reputation within Umno.

Victory in the party elections for the son would give rise to suspicion that he would act as a proxy for his conservative father.

Both father, who has previously scorned political dynasties, and son have denied that. Neither responded to requests for interviews.

At 49, young by Umno leadership standards, Mukhriz is less strident than his father, he is largely untested and has yet to set out a comprehensive political vision.

"I am happy to continue with the struggles for the party and the country, but I have my own ideas," Mukhriz was quoted as saying by state-run news agency Bernama.

His victory in the internal party polls is far from assured, but would mark Mukhriz out as contender for leadership of the party that has ruled since independence from Britain in 1957.

As chief minister of northern Kedah state, known for its paddy fields and conservative Islam, Mukhriz has raised his profile this year. He has hewed to conservative positions, such as opposing the use of the word "Allah" by Christians - a touchy issue in Muslim Malaysia.

Mukhriz would have scant chance of success without the Mahathir name. Yet even within the party there are doubts over what he stands for.

"Mukhriz might be a new face but he's hardly known as a progressive. Is he just his father's puppet? That's what people want to know," said one senior Umno politician, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.