Analysts: Nurul Izzah’s outburst widens Anwar-Mahathir rift

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attend the Ceramah Mega in Port Dickson October 8, 2018. — Picture by Azneal Ishak
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attend the Ceramah Mega in Port Dickson October 8, 2018. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — Nurul Izzah Anwar’s recent interview in The Straits Times where she publicly criticised the Pakatan Harapan (PH) leadership has exposed the growing fissure between component members of the ruling coalition, analysts said.

Pundits say the PKR leader’s censure of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the clearest sign of a power struggle between the latter and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s faction over the prime ministership, even as both leaders appear supportive of each other in public.

If left unaddressed, the infighting could culminate in the pro-Mahathir faction refusing to back the PKR president for the post, thus triggering a political crisis, said one analyst.

Kartini Aboo Talib, political scientist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said Nurul Izzah’s denunciation of Dr Mahathir, whom she called a former dictator in the interview with the Singapore daily, only added fuel to the fire.

“The big impact is you may not be able to see Anwar Ibrahim as the next PM,” she told Malay Mail.

“Because the next PM has to be the one who receives the most support from the alliance and the people. Izzah will be the reflection of Anwar who is in disagreement with Tun Mahathir — she is the symbol.”

Nurul Izzah, a three-term MP, is the most prominent PH leader to be critical of the new government. She claimed the ruling coalition is too slow on reforms, and that the patronage system that pervaded the former Barisan Nasional (BN) administration remains alive under the new leadership.

Although the Permatang Pauh MP did not name anybody specifically in her allegations, her criticism is seemingly directed at Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (PPBM) acceptance of Umno defectors. 

Dr Mahathir founded PPBM, an all-Malay party, that has taken in close to a dozen former Umno MPs who defected just months after BN’s defeat despite protests from its allies.

Soon after that, Nurul Izzah announced her resignation from all government and political party positions, adding that she would also not seek re-election at the next general election, a move seen as a protest against Dr Mahathir’s leadership.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the PKR leader’s exit could also indicate an underlying frustration with party colleagues, including her own father, for seemingly pandering to the Mahathir faction.

“Nurul’s continual rebellious antics should be viewed in light of seeing her dad being too ‘soft’ in engaging Dr Mahathir’s ‘salvos’,” he said.

Anwar was initially critical of PPBM’s embrace of Umno defectors but shortly after, the PKR president said who PPBM accepts is its prerogative so as long as the new members supported the coalition’s reform agenda.

The Port Dickson MP, who is all set to take over the helm from Dr Mahathir in two years’ time, has kept a conciliatory tone — at least in public — ever since.

When some PH leaders slammed Nurul Izzah for venting against her own colleagues in the newspaper article, Anwar defended his daughter and pledged support for the prime minister at the same time.

Economic Affairs Minister and PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was among those critical of the Permatang Pauh MP and saw her actions as detrimental to the coalition’s morale.

Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar of Universiti Malaya said Nurul Izzah’s outburst was likely an appeal for the PH leadership to respect its more progressive base, but whether or not the protest resonates with the coalition’s ideologically-diverse voters remains to be seen.

“What we see here is a clash between idealism and pragmatism,” he said.

“It underpins not only the tug-of-war in PKR between the pro-Anwar faction and those with reservations about him being prime minister, but also the irreconcilable ideological schism within PH.”