A Decades-Old Power Struggle Comes to a Boil

Rosalind Mathieson
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A Decades-Old Power Struggle Comes to a Boil

(Bloomberg) --

It’s a power struggle that goes back decades.

In Malaysia, 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who made a dramatic return to the premiership in 2018, is locked in a race with Anwar Ibrahim for the leadership after their tenuous alliance collapsed.

The two put aside a bitter rivalry in the 2018 election to defeat Najib Razak and oust UMNO, the group in power since Malaysian independence in 1957.

To say they are “frenemies” is putting it mildly. Mahathir fell out with Anwar in 1998, when Anwar was his deputy prime minister, over how best to tackle the Asian financial crisis. After Anwar was fired, he was jailed in the majority-Muslim nation on charges of sodomy and abusing power. He was jailed again in 2015 for a subsequent sodomy allegation.

Since winning the 2018 vote, Mahathir has prevaricated repeatedly about handing power to Anwar. Those bubbling tensions have now burst open.

Mahathir today abruptly resigned the premiership and his party post, even as that group and others continue to back him. It’s likely a gambit to get parties to fall in line behind him. But don’t count Anwar out. He’s also an astute politician with loyal followers.

There is much at stake. Does Malaysia move toward policies that treat all races equally, or still give preferential treatment to ethnic Malays? Economists have long argued the latter approach holds the country back. Mahathir also has slammed the Trump administration over its stance on trade and China (he’s a fan of telecoms giant Huawei).

The wrangling could yet end up in an election. But in the meantime, Game of Thrones is playing out in real life.

Global Headlines

Spectacle over substance | It was bear hugs all around today when U.S. President Donald Trump stepped off the plane in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where nearly one in four Indian-Americans trace their roots. But the bonhomie masks trade tensions between the two nations, which struggled to sign even a modest agreement before Trump’s visit. For now, they’ll have to be content with a $3 billion defense deal and the promise of more talks.

Top status cemented | A chief criticism of Bernie Sanders always has been that his energetic but narrow base — young, mostly white, heavily male and largely disaffected — would make it easy for Trump to roll over him come November. Nevada’s primary suggested otherwise. Sanders’s commanding win broadened his coalition to look more like the Democratic Party as a whole.

Click here for more about how Vice President Mike Pence already is positioning himself for the Republican nomination in 2024.

Italy rattled | Italy is struggling to cope with a surge of coronavirus infections, with the government coming under fire for a muddled response and accusations by its leading right-wing politician, Matteo Salvini, that it’s failing to defend the nation’s borders. Italy, now Europe’s epicenter of the outbreak, has imposed a lockdown on an area of 50,000 people near Milan and canceled the remaining days of the Venice Carnival.

Click here for the latest on the worldwide spread of the virus. Read about China’s temporary move to ease Wuhan’s quarantine. China’s top legislature postponed its annual session in the capital.

Beyond Merkel | Germany’s Christian Democrats posted their worst result since World War II in Hamburg’s state elections yesterday. The CDU will hold a special party conference April 25 to choose a successor to outgoing party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Underpinning all of that is the deep uncertainty over how, and when, the party will move past the era of Angela Merkel. 

Throwback win | Iran’s hard-liners registered a victory in parliamentary elections, handing the legislature to people determined to turn the clock back on reconciliation with the West. Expect a retreat from commitments to the hollowed-out nuclear deal as the Islamic Republic’s economy bleeds from Trump’s sanctions onslaught.

What to Watch This Week

Pressure is mounting on protesters at blockades that have slowed Canada’s rail network as provincial governments indicate they’re ready for police intervention, an approach Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signaled he’d be open to after acknowledging the failure of his government’s efforts to negotiate a solution. Democratic candidates hold their 10th debate tomorrow in South Carolina ahead of that state’s primary on Saturday. The Trump administration is poised to argue before the Supreme Court today that victims of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi should be compensated by Sudan, which at the time harbored the attack’s plotters, Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members. Britain’s Labour Party starts voting today on a leader to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, with final results expected April 4. South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni presents his budget on Wednesday, but he’s unlikely to convince Moody’s Investors Service that he has a credible plan to rein in government debt.

Thanks to all who responded to our pop quiz Friday and congratulations to reader Marc Koffman, who was the first to name Roland Burris as the person former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed to fill to fill the Senate seat Barack Obama vacated to become president. Tell us how we’re doing or what we’re missing at balancepower@bloomberg.net.

And finally ... Raw sewage on potholed streets, piles of garbage on sidewalks and water and power shortages — such conditions have become routine in some of South Africa’s towns. But in Makana, something extraordinary happened last month. The High Court granted a civil rights group’s application to have the council dissolved because of its failure to carry out its duties. The decision sent shock waves through the ruling African National Congress, which controls scores of other municipalities hobbled by corruption and mismanagement.

 

--With assistance from Ben Sills and Ruth Pollard.

To contact the author of this story: Rosalind Mathieson in London at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Karl Maier at kmaier2@bloomberg.net, Kathleen Hunter

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