Parallel Prime Ministers: Imran Khan and Mahathir Mohamad

While both Imran Khan’s PTI Party and Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power this year, when it comes to experience in government Imran and Mahathir greeted 2018 from very different positions.  Mahathir formed his first Malaysian government in 1981 while he remained in the country’s top political office until the year in 2003. During his time in power, Mahathir helped to open up the Malaysian economy leading to a transformational economic miracle beginning in the 1980s. Throughout his time in power Mahathir also presided over a loosening of the affirmative action policies of positive discrimination in favour of the ethnic Malay population while he also saw his country through the Asian financial crisis of 1997. At the age of 93, he returned to power in 2018 at the head of a new coalition which for the first time since the modern founding of Malaysia ousted the legacy party UMNO (Mahathir’s old party) from power.

While Mahathir is the world’s oldest head of government with decades of experience in government, Imran Khan entered government for the first time in the summer of 2018. While PTI found success in the erstwhile “ungovernable” Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the 2013 election, at a national level, PTI which was founded by Imran in 1996 remained a consummate opposition party. It was only in 2018 when PTI managed to secure a victory over both the incumbent PML-N and legacy PPP to form its first government.

But while Imran and Mahathir’s experience is incredibly divergent, their purpose in government and the reasons underlying their popularity remains much the same. First of all, both men share a similar background in terms of political thought. Both are advocates of economic modernisation, progressive nationalism with Islamic characteristics and geopolitical non-alignment. Both men have also won acclaim due to their total opposition to all forms of endemic corruption.

In both cases, 2018 saw each man sweep to power (in the case of Mahathir seep back to power after a fourteen year absence) by riding an anti-corrupt tide that was characterised by mercilessly critical rhetoric directed to their main predecessors – Najib Razak in Malaysia and for all intents and purposes Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan. While Najib was a member of the party whose seemingly unbreakable hold over Malaysian politics  Mahathir helped to secure beginning in the 1980s and while Nawaz once spoke of how he would like to have the then cricket hero Imran Khan on his side politically in the early 1990s, both Mahathir and Imran campaigned against the crony capitalism of their predecessors and their penchant for economic and political nepotism.

Just this week the wife of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and current PML-N opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif were arrested on charges relating to their role on facilitating the corruption of their former Prime Ministerial family relations. Interestingly, these arrests occurred within twenty-four hours of one another. While these arrests were clearly not internationally coordinated, the optics do help to illustrate the similarities between Imran and Mahathir.

Perhaps though the most crucial element regarding the similarities of Imran and Mahathir is their policies towards China – policies which remains mutually misunderstood and at times openly lied about by the wider international media. Unlike Malaysia, Pakistan is known to be an all-weather friend of China. That being said, recent years have seen increased Chinese trade among both nations while both nations also stand to benefit from the international Belt and Road initiative.

Both Mahathir’s government and Imran’s government have recently received attention due to statements allegedly signalling a distancing of both states from Belt and Road. The reality is very different. Both men’s commitment to a pro-national, non-aligned foreign policy has led to frequent criticisms of the United States from both Mahathir and Imran. As both Malaysia and Pakistan have given more than they have received in practical terms from past partnerships with America, both men have come to represent a pro-sovereignty minded stance in opposition to neo-imperial hegemony.

While both men have embraced multiple elements of Belt and Road, Mahathir has recently paused and revised some joint Sino-Malaysian projects. The key to understanding Mahathir’s motivation lies in the realisation that these pauses and revisions were inspired not by any concept for China but based on the fact that these projects were in enacted under the leadership of his corrupt predecessor. While China is known for its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its partners, this ethical position cuts both ways. On the one hand, China will not seek to manipulate the domestic governance of foreign partners as the US is infamous for doing, but on the same token, China expects all of its partners to take their share of responsibility throughout the course of the execution of any and all joint projects. Because of this, China is not prepared to act as the ethics nanny of its partner nations. The decisions such nations take whether with China or any other multipolar partner will be decisions that the nation in question must ultimately be responsible for and take ownership of.

As such, the vanity projects of Mahathir’s predecessor were viewed as distasteful by the current Malaysian Premier not due to their linkage with China but due to their linkage with a Malaysian economic culture that Mahathir was specifically elected to stamp out. Likewise, when Imran Khan’s government speaks about revising certain aspects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it is done in this same spirit. Imran Khan has made his positive position towards Pakistan’s Chinese partnership absolutely clear. Likewise, in the case of both Pakistan and Malaysia, Chinese officials have made it unambiguously clear that they look forward to revising past deals on a win-win basis due to their respect for the reformist positions of Imran and Mahathir’s respective governments. While the US and certain European states have a tendency to take business matters personally, China’s long term strategy prohibits such fits of hysteria through the course of any and all evolving and growing partnerships.

In this sense, Pakistan and Malaysia’s different roles within the Belt and Road system are not only secure but healthy. By stamping out the corruption of their predecessors, Imran Khan and Mahathir Mohamad are both ensuring that the long term sustainable development goals implicit in Belt and Road will be all the more successful on both a national and bilateral basis.

While Imran Khan is at the beginning of his first period in office while Mahathir’s advanced age has led the veteran politician to signal that he will eventually resign and hand power to his reconciled partner Anwar Ibrahim, at a time when both men share power on the world’s stage, it is helpful to understand the parallel paths that both have charted for their Asian nations as the similarities are both striking and mutually instructive in more ways than one.

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