Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has proved a resilient leader. By cracking down on dissent and strengthening affirmative action for the Muslim Malay majority that constitutes his base, Najib has weathered a popular vote loss in 2013 elections and a blockbuster corruption scandal in which he allegedly funneled US$700 million from a state development fund into his personal bank accounts.
But January 7 might have marked the beginning of the end for Najib. On that day, Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and Najib's political mentor, announced he would run as PM candidate for the opposition coalition in elections due by August this year. The announcement sent our signal measuring digital attention to Malaysia's opposition parties to its highest level since the 2013 elections.
Mahathir, now 92, has joined forces with Anwar Ibrahim, the popular opposition leader imprisoned since 2015 on sodomy charges that he says are politically motivated. (Anwar was deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, when Mahathir sacked him and endorsed criminal charges against him). The same day Mahathir announced his candidacy, Malaysia's prisons department said Anwar would be granted early release on June 8. Activity on Anwar's Twitter account, which he uses from prison, surged in the days before the announcement, indicating that the reprieve and probably the reconciliation with Mahathir were in the works.
This consolidation drastically improves the opposition's prospects for unseating Najib and his ruling UNMO party. Mahathir has clout with the rural Muslim Malays wary of the reform-minded Anwar. In a testament to the move's significance, our signals that anticipate civil disruption in Malaysia have shot upward. The new political alignment could inspire anti-government demonstrations, or spur the ruling UMNO party to mobilize supporters for rallies as a show of strength.