KUALA LUMPUR, July 14 — Recent attacks suggest that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will be framed as the primary target of Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) heading into the general election, according to political observers.
Commenting on the overt attacks directed at the former prime minister — a departure from the previous restraint showed when rebutting the one-time Umno president — they also said the ruling party will no longer offer him any quarter.
In possibly the most snide remark directed at Dr Mahathir since he began attacking the government, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made reference to the former’s “Indian heritage” during a celebration of Tamil schools in Malaysia.
The apparent contempt for the just-appointed Pakatan Harapan chairman was a clear deviation from the reverence that the former prime minister had still enjoyed in the nascent days of his offensive against the current administration.
“At the moment, he is the enemy, so (they) must go all out. I think any leftover goodwill within Umno leadership for Dr M has long since exhausted,” political analyst Oh Ei Sun told Malay Mail Online.
The adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said, however, that the brutality of the attacks also suggested the possible threat posed by Dr Mahathir, which he said may be more significant than other Opposition leaders.
For Ibrahim Suffian, the director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, the attacks may also serve to strip Dr Mahathir of his remaining vestiges of invulnerability, expose his frailty and highlight his failings.
A frequent tactic of BN leaders sniping at Dr Mahathir is to underline his many inconsistencies, which have become increasingly apparent since he joined the Opposition in his campaign to depose Najib.
Umno is also increasingly contrasting the achievements of Najib and Dr Mahathir, highlighting that the former has governed over more major projects since 2009 than the latter in his 22 years of power.
“Najib has set him (Dr Mahathir) as the main antagonist against his political leadership,” Ibrahim told Malay Mail Online.
“With elections approaching, there is no doubt who Najib’s main opponent is and how far he would go to bring him down.”
Ibrahim predicted, however, that not all Umno leaders will be savage in attacking Dr Mahathir, lest this offends the Malay electorate that still has some sympathy for the former PM.
Such a strategy is not without risk, according to Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani from Universiti Utara Malaysia. He said Dr Mahathir will likely respond with equal or greater ferocity.
“Knowing Tun, I think he will strategise something. So, BN must prepare to face all attacks from Tun until the polling day,” Azizuddin said, referring to Dr Mahathir by his title.
Dr Mahathir resigned from Umno again in 2016 after failing to convince the party to remove Najib, and went on to form Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) with another former Umno leader, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
His rapid embrace by Opposition parties that he once detested prompted his critics to label him the true leader of the federal Opposition, a position he has come to hold now as chairman of Pakatan Harapan.