LANGKAWI — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad began his assault on the northern peninsular state of Kedah on Sunday night, hoping his candidacy for Langkawi will jumpstart his informal Pakatan Harapan pact’s bid to secure the Malay heartland state.
The setting has an undeniable narrative convenience: Legend has it that Langkawi was cursed to stagnate by a mythical woman named Mahsuri, when she was executed after being falsely accused of infidelity.
Like Mahsuri, Dr Mahathir stands accused of betraying his former party Umno by throwing his lot in with DAP, which he had so reviled up until 2016.
Whether the island suffers or profits from this battle, however, remains to be seen.
But the former prime minister at least has familiar support for his charge, declaring his son – former Kedah menteri besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir – as the challenger for Jerlun and the Jitra state seat.
In Kedah where the majority is largely Malay farmers and fishermen whose children went to schools and universities when Dr Mahathir was still prime minister, his direct involvement in the 14th general election is set to tug at their nostalgia and play on “sentimental feelings”.
This will be particularly so in Langkawi, where residents still consider Dr Mahathir the man who “ended” Mahsuri’s curse on the island and transformed it into a prosperous place.
However, they will be mindful that Dr Mahathir is also in bed with DAP, which is leading an invasion into another Malay bastion, Johor, where it aims to eliminate the final refuges of BN’s Chinese-component, MCA.
The two points of attack form a pincer movement of sorts, with DAP pushing up from the south and Dr Mahathir’s PPBM pressing down from the north, with support from PKR and Amanah.
But that is where the similarities end. Separated by nearly 800km, the issues at play in each state are just as far apart.
Mukhriz made note of this when he said: “Kedah is the second-poorest state in the country and the issues mostly revolve around economy and infrastructure, where the federal government needs to do more to help the people.
“The federal government needs to work hand-in-hand with the state government to uplift the local economy and build infrastructure that can accommodate Kedahans’ efforts,” the former MB of the state said.
In short, the Opposition pact is hoping to base its campaign here by promising development and economic activities, while the usual topics that Dr Mahathir has raised on the ceramah trail, such as grand corruption, will be secondary.
Ultimately, however, the real tip of the PH spear in the north is just one man: Dr Mahathir, who will waste no opportunity to trade on his remaining goodwill and remind residents of his past contributions.
At a time when the country experiences a shift towards youth and women, however, it remains to be seen how fielding a 93-year-old political retiree will play out.
As thin as the PH proposition in Kedah will be, it will at least be aided by residual mistrust of PAS.
The Islamist party governed the state between 2008 and 2013 as part of the defunct Pakatan Rakyat pact.
PAS is now bidding to win the state on its own, but it is a party that continues to face internal conflict and will find its support cannibalised by PPBM and Amanah.
The Islamist party also struggles to dispel perceptions that it is no longer a part of the Opposition, fuelled by its balmy relations with the ruling BN.
This could prompt supporters to cast their eyes further afield for another party more in tune with their cause, which could provide an opening for PPBM and Amanah.
Both coalitions will find Kedah a tough challenge, but the stakes here are high, so high that Dr Mahathir is personally leading the PH effort here.
To bolster his chances, DAP has also been reduced to being in the background to allow Dr Mahathir and his party a better chance at convincing Malay voters to support him.
Whatever the outcome, the scene is now set for Dr Mahathir to execute either a stunning political comeback in the vein of US General Douglas MacArthur, who famously said in World War II “I came through and I shall return”, or spectacularly fail like Custer’s Last Stand.