By Murray Hunter

BANGKOK, Thailand--There is more than meets the eye to the Anwar Ibrahim and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi relationship.

There has long been suspicion that Pakatan Harapan leader Anwar and UMNO president Zahid held secret talks before the last general election.

Fate, circumstances, electoral results, and intervention by Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah led to Anwar forming a unity government, supported by the Barisan Nasional led by Zahid.

The unanswered question is whether this is a marriage of pure convenience to grab the government or is there something deeper behind the move?

During the election campaign there was much talk about how toxic Zahid was for the Barisan Nasional. Zahid barely held onto his seat Bagan Datuk with just a 348 vote majority. His local campaign was sabotaged by the grassroots membership, and Khairy Jamaluddin openly disputed Zahid’s claim on the UMNO presidency both during and immediately after the election.

Zahid was openly attacked for his alleged corruption by Pakatan Harapan leaders, where the scenario of Zahid becoming prime minister if the Barisan Nasional won the election was used to deter voters.

Just a month before the election campaign commenced, Zahid was acquitted of all 40 charges of receiving bribes from a company to extend its foreign visa system (VLN) contract. Zahid still faces 35 charges for money laundering and criminal breach of trust (CBT) involving millions of Ringgit in payments to his charity Yayasan Akalbudi. The case is expected to begin next January.

The Barisan Nasional finishing with only 30 federal seats after the election appeared to end Zahid’s career.

When it was confirmed that Pakatan, BN, and Sarawak’s GPS would form a coalition government together, news portals were full of comments about how the selection of Zahid as deputy prime minister would go against all of Pakatan’s ethics. 

This continued after Zahid was announced as deputy prime minister, after last minute wranglings, delaying the cabinet announcement by three and a half hours, over Tenku Zafrul’s appointment to cabinet.

Most pundits dismiss the Anwar-Zahid relationship as just one of convenience. Some even believe that Anwar will one day be betrayed by Zahid, if the opportunity arises. However, Anwar and Zahid’s history together tell another story.

Back to the ‘reformasi days’

Anwar and Zahid have been political allies for many years. The two share a long relationship spanning many decades, beginning in the 1970s, when Anwar and Zahid were student activists at Universiti Malaya.

This relationship continued during their time in UMNO together. When Anwar was deputy prime minister, serving under Mahathir Mohamed, Zahid was the UMNO Youth chief. Many commentators at the time attribute Zahid’s early rise within UMNO to Anwar.

Within UMNO, Zahid was also seen as a critic of Mahathir. He was believed to have supported Anwar in his bid to topple Mahathir in 1998. When Zahid brought up allegations of nepotism and cronyism in government procurement, Mahathir retaliated by painting Zahid as one of Anwar’s cronies.

Zahid stood by Anwar when he was sacked as deputy prime minister and stripped of all his posts within UMNO, on September 2 1998. Anwar was accused of sodomy and corruption, horrific enough allegations for any Malay to stand away from. Zahid was one of the few within UMNO who stood fast.

After Anwar’s jailing Zahid continued the fight and was arrested at a rally supporting Anwar, and interned under the Internal Security Act (ISA), along with Azmin Ali, Hishamuddin Rais, and Tian Chua. Zahid was released earlier than the others, publicly pledging support for Mahathir, which was the cost of freedom at the time. He resigned as UMNO youth leader, but remained in UMNO.

During Anwar’s time in jail Zahid rebuilt his career within UMNO, being appointed a deputy minister under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, eventually becoming deputy prime minister after Najib Razak sacked Muhyiddin Yassin in 2015.

Zahid also had a long relationship, since his UMNO youth days with Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, who lost his Kulim-Bandar Baru seat in Kedah to Roslan Hashim of Bersatu in the recent general election. However, Anwar has appointed Saifuddin as the minister for home affairs, with an appointment to the Senate.

Zahid’s surprise speech?

It should not be surprising that Zahid gave one of the most illuminating speeches of his career at an election rally for the Padang Serai by-election. Zahid said that race and religion are now obsolete, and the policies of inclusiveness and unity are now more relevant than ever before. 
He also said that UMNO must learn from past mistakes and expressed hope that UMNO would work within the unity government even beyond this current parliamentary term, to forge ‘a glorious government to lead the country forward.’

Working as Anwar’s alter-ego, Zahid is able to get away with saying things Anwar would be attacked on. It will be only in the coming months we will see if Zahid and Anwar continue this political role play, where Anwar thinks, and Zahid speaks his thoughts.

No doubt, Zahid will be the beneficiary of this political expediency. There is no doubt a new attorney general and public prosecutor, will either drop the charges, or in ‘sandiwara’ (roleplay) manner argue Zahid’s prosecution poorly enough to force an acquittal. 
What is important here was that High Court Judge Yazid Mustafa in Zahid’s recent case, ruled the prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case against Zahid.

Anwar and Zahid’s long-time relationship bore fruit with the opportunity to take power after the November 19 election. While Zahid was under intense pressure to resign after UMNO’s dismal electoral performance, he abandoned talks with Muhyiddin and jumped across with enthusiasm to Anwar.

Many of UMNO’s 30 MPs strongly opposed the move, and probably still do. However, Zahid and Anwar were able to move under the cover of the monarchy. This enabled Zahid to lock Sarawak's GPS into the coalition.

Opportune or by design, time will tell us.