PENANG, Malaysia — Facing a tricky general election later this year, on Sunday the political opposition in Malaysia named its candidate to head the government: Mahathir Mohamad, who was the country’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
The choice may seem curious. Mr. Mahathir is 92 years old. He is a former patron-turned-foe of both the current prime minister, the embattled Najib Razak, and the opposition’s longtime leader, the imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim. This appointment also makes Mr. Mahathir, at least nominally, the main challenger to the very system he helped build during his decades in power.
It’s a controversial move on the part of the opposition — and it’s brilliant.
Mr. Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has ruled Malaysia in coalition governments for more than six decades. Its appeal rests on a kind of grand quid pro quo with the Malay-Muslim majority, whose interests it has vowed to promote over those of the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities, including, since the early 1970s, through a vast affirmative-action program.
Over the years, this arrangement has turned Malaysia into something of a one-party state. Voting here often seems more like a pro forma exercise to keep UMNO in power than a real opportunity for the citizenry to choose its government.
Political scientists estimate that in the previous general election, in 2013, the opposition coalition of the day won overwhelming support among Chinese, for example, but only about one-third of votes among Malays, a far bigger constituency. That result, combined with the government’s crafty redelineation of voting districts, explains why the opposition secured only 40 percent of seats in Parliament despite winning 51 percent of the popular vote.
Mr. Mahathir had a fair bit to do with creating the conditions for this. During his tenure, he extended the reach of UMNO over institutions while concentrating his own power within the party. Dissidents were jailed. Judges were sacked. Newspapers were suspended. Voting districts were gerrymandered.
In short: Mr. Mahathir helped build the state apparatus that makes Mr. Najib seem invincible today, or at least surprisingly resilient despite staggering financial scandals.
Could Mr. Mahathir dismantle this system now? Would he? That seems unlikely. Some of his critics doubt that he would ever reverse pro-Malay preferential policies. Others argue that naming him to lead the opposition coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, has undermined its moral authorityas a champion of progressive causes and reform.
Maybe so, but it still was a smart thing to do.
Mr. Mahathir’s advanced age is an asset: His term would presumably be short, forcing turnover in a country long dominated by dynastic politics. Mr. Anwar, who is in prison on a sodomy conviction, is expected to be released in June, subject to a ban that prevents him from holding office for five years. But the prohibition can be lifted with a royal pardon, and Mr. Mahathir has committed to helping Mr. Anwar’s rehabilitation and passing him the baton.
Mr. Mahathir is not just the only Malaysian politician today who can hold the fractious opposition together; he is also the only one who stands any chance of defeating Mr. Najib at his own game, namely by appealing to the Muslim-Malay majority.
The opposition has long been a motley assortment, usually of the Malay party led by Mr. Anwar, a predominantly ethnic-Chinese party and some Islamists. Partly because of their association with, say, the Chinese party, even Muslim-Malay opposition leaders like Mr. Anwar have been accused of betraying their own ethnic group and religion. And UMNO has consistently framed any challenge to it as a threat to Muslim-Malays’ political power, their preferential quotas and even Islam itself.
Such charges can’t stick against Mr. Mahathir.
UMNO loyalists call him a turncoat, and reformists may question his bona fides as a democrat, but he is popular among many Malays. He is credited with spearheading the country’s industrialization in the 1980s and standing up to the International Monetary Fund during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
His Malay-nationalist credentials are even stronger than those of Mr. Najib, who contemplated rolling back ethnic privileges when he became prime minister in 2009. Mr. Mahathir vehemently opposed the move at the time. Today, his new party admits only Malays and natives of Borneo as its members — a clear attempt to steal some of UMNO’s ethnic thunder.
Mr. Mahathir does seem to have an electoral weakness: his apparently tepid commitment to Islam. This has left him open to vicious attacks, notably from the Islamist party PAS, which was once in the opposition but has now joined forces with UMNO, and may play spoiler in this election.
UMNO and PAS have a long and complicated relationship. In recent years Mr. Najib managed to lure a group of PAS hard-liners to his side by endorsing their call to implement and expand certain Shariah punishments. PAS, for its part, has defended Mr. Najib against charges of embezzlement, for example decrying the United States investigation into the 1MDB scandal as a foreign intervention. It has also announced that it will run in 130 out of 222 constituencies nationwide in the upcoming election, putting additional pressure on Pakatan Harapan.
Although the opposition appears to be gaining traction, the odds do seem against its winning the contest, especially since the government continues to redraw voting districts to its advantage. A recent poll suggests that Mr. Najib’s party may even secure two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, the voting majority required to amend the Constitution.
Yet even if Pakatan Harapan loses, and Mr. Mahathir ends up only being a parliamentary opposition leader for a time, something fundamental in Malaysian politics changed this week.
With PAS out of the opposition coalition and Mr. Mahathir’s party in, Pakatan Harapan has traded the need to appeal to (Muslim) religious nationalists for the need to appeal to (Malay) economic nationalists, a shift that may help loosen UMNO’s lock on mainstream Muslim-Malay votes.
And because Mr. Mahathir represents continuity in change, his nomination has just made change more acceptable — for voters in this election perhaps but, far more important, for eventually reforming Malaysia’s deep state.