In Malaysia, the battle lines between a former and current prime minister are being drawn. As the country braces for a clash of the political titans, here’s how it could all play out.

For former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, defeating PM Najib Razak at the next election is “theoretically” possible, albeit not with money politics which he claims is Najib’s only competitive advantage. “Najib is very, very weak,” Mahathir said on Thursday in his Putrajaya office, adding that “if he is not able to bribe, he will lose. He has to bribe, because he believes that bribery is king.”

Despite his perceived weakness, however, and after his twin by-election victories earlier this month, calls have resumed for Najib to call a snap election soon, while fractious opposition parties remain in a state of tactical disarray. Najib may be preparing to do exactly that, foreshadowing on the weekend that he will announce a cabinet reshuffle today. Whenever Najib does call the election, which is due in or before 2018, Mahathir appears to have concluded that he will not win by developing a competing brand of money politics. “I can’t,” Mahathir said, “because if we give money he will always give more. He has tons of money.”

How then does he propose to remove Najib from office, and what moves will he make to prepare for the looming confrontation? Will he aim to use his influence to split UMNO, thereby weakening Barisan and increasing his capacity to compete in the powerful rural electorates?

In fact Mahathir has spent since Thursday angling for maximum flexibility to negotiate, with groupings both inside and outside UMNO. He has also been careful to limit his association with parties that his Barisan opponents will target to discredit him.

“A lot of people in UMNO still, can I say, look up to me,” Mahathir explained. “And I can’t just go with the opposition unless of course they themselves change a little,” he continued. How could they change, if they were inclined to, to make themselves more attractive to him? “So the very Chinese attitude of the DAP is certainly not something that I can identify with,” Mahathir announced.

This care to dissociate himself from the DAP is an important signal that no matter what moves he makes, Mahathir must protect his credentials as a Malay Muslim nationalist. Mahathir has already been attacked by Barisan, PAS and the Utusan Malaysia newspaper for being too close to the DAP, having been called a “minion,” “unprincipled”, and a “traitor” manipulated by “enemies of Islam”.

Yet Mahathir has taken a slightly different position on the prospect of collaborating with his arch nemesis, jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. On Friday, Mahathir was interviewed by Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, who referred to reports that negotiators had approached Anwar and Mahathir to encourage them to work together. Mahathir refused to rule out the possibility, pointing out only that Anwar and his family had made negative comments about him in the media. Meanwhile, other rumours have also suggested that both parties involved have been encouraged to take their time, allowing them to “come to their own conclusions.”

Over the weekend, however, time seems to have begun moving more quickly. On Friday, UMNO began to purge Mahathir’s allies from the party, diminishing his capacity to re-enter UMNO to move against Najib with other party rebels. The most prominent victim of this purge was Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz Mahathir, who was recently removed from his position as Chief Minister of Kedah to deny him the resources of that state government.

Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin was also expelled, after having had his membership suspended in February, and being sacked from his position of Deputy Prime Minister after openly criticising Najib when the 1MDB scandal first broke in July 2015. UMNO Vice President, Shafie Apdal, who joined Mahathir in signing the Citizen’s Declaration, has also been suspended, and Mahathir’s Perdana Leadership Foundation has also been defunded.

Also on Friday, Anwar issued an open letter from prison, urging opposition groups to “Put aside all differences, put aside internecine quarrels. … We must defeat the BN in the 14th GE, we must come through for the sake of Malaysia!”

At the same time, the Barisan onslaught on the DAP also took a new, potentially risky, turn. As if to anticipate possible attempts by Mahathir, Mukhriz and Muhyiddin to draw other UMNO rebels out of the party, the state Mufti of Pahang issued a statement denoting the DAP and its allies kafir harbi. This designation, derived from Islamic jurisprudence, effectively classifies DAP members and their associates as hostile non-believers in a state of war against Islam and Muslims. Due to their purported hostility, it further defines them as having forfeited the right to protection of their lives and property. The logic of the Mufti’s comments appears to sanction attacks on these people’s lives, should anyone draw such a devastating conclusion from them.

While the Mufti attracted heavy criticisms over the weekend, on Sunday Najib himself elected not to reproach him. Instead, he issued a statement that “We cannot compromise on the Islamic struggle in this blessed land. We reject those who dislike Islam and know who they are and their collaborators.”

Who they are is the DAP, and Mahathir and his allies, including Mukhriz and Muhyiddin. Such statements are intended not to encourage actual violence, but to discipline Malay Muslims inside and outside UMNO who might consider joining them. In reality, they rely on the assumption that nobody will act on them—potentially a dubious assumption as the debate gains intensity—while projecting UMNO as the only force that can protect and defend Malay Muslims and their interests.

They also enable UMNO to foster even closer collaboration with Islamist party PAS, which left the Pakatan coalition after the 2013 federal election, causing a group of leaders and members to split away to form Amanah, who Muhyiddin was filmed talking to on Sunday by Channel News Asia. On Sunday, Muhyiddin announced he was considering forming a new political “platform” of some kind. If it is a new party with Mahathir and Mukhriz, then it will presumably aim to enhance their position as a “Malay Muslim” alternative, countering the accusation that they are a DAP front.

Meanwhile, Mukhriz has also begun appeal to others inside UMNO, arguing that UMNO would likely hand control of two state governments—Terengganu and Kedah—over to PAS, to make it more attractive for PAS to collaborate with Najib. Mukhriz has also argued that UMNO is weakened by its association with Najib, while an association of UMNO Division Chiefs, the Gabungan Ketua Cawangan Malaysia, has called for Mukhriz, Muhyiddin and Mahathir to come to an understanding with Pakatan to bring down Barisan at the next election. Muhyiddin has argued that today’s UMNO is no longer the “real” UMNO, presumably sanctioning member disloyalty to restore its true path.

Will the weekend’s intense negotiations establish Mahathir as new Opposition Leader, uniting and strengthening the Pakatan with an infusion of UMNO members? Mahathir reflected for a moment, stating “They are willing to work with me, which is very, very strange, but admittedly, they are working with me only on one issue, the removal of Najib.” Mahathir was careful to also state his own boundaries. “And I’m working with them only on that issue: Najib. I’m not subscribing to their ideology, their struggles and all that. I said to them that unless you remove Najib, no way you can … push forward with your objectives, because Najib will not allow it.” They must be hoping that Mahathir will allow it, assuming their electoral push is successful.

Meanwhile, on the bitterness directed at him by opposition leaders who fought him long and hard for decades, Mahathir is unrepentant. “I myself did not feel hurt, but the opposition being the opposition must find some faults with me, but most of what they say is not close to the truth. And some of what they say in their effort to demonise me and therefore win support, they have sort of gone overboard.”

According to Mahathir, all that is unimportant now in any case. “We say that the only issue is to remove Najib, and on that issue we came together. And they were willing to accept me as well, because I was also against Najib. But that is not enough to remove Najib alone.”

Apparently not, at least to date, and for now Malaysia’s realignment continues apace.

Amrita Malhi is a Visiting Fellow in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. Her website is

This article is based on an in-depth interview between Amrita Malhi and  Dr Mahathir Mohamad and is the first in a three-part series. Read the second here and the third here.