In Malaysia, Mahathir's rising son signals conservative shift

By Siva Sithraputhran

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The chief minister of the rural Malaysian state of Kedah has a familiar face, even if he lacks the charisma, provocative rhetoric and razor-sharp political skills of his famous father.

Mukhriz Mahathir is the youngest son of Malaysia's longest-serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, whose often authoritarian rule transformed the economy into a developing powerhouse while winning a reputation for cronyism and dubious "mega-projects".

Ten years after his father stepped down, Mukhriz has stepped into a battle for the soul of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in a test of 88-year-old Mahathir senior's still-powerful influence over the party.

If Mukhriz succeeds in snaring a coveted UMNO vice presidential post later this month, unseating one of three seasoned cabinet ministers, it would be seen as a further blow to the flagging reform agenda of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The ruling coalition's weak election victory in May undermined Najib's attempts to forge more inclusive policies in racially diverse Malaysia, empowering UMNO conservatives who want to strengthen policies favouring majority ethnic Malays.

The elder Mahathir remains a potent figure through his towering reputation and leverage within UMNO. Victory in the party elections for the son would give rise to suspicion that he would act as a proxy for his father.

Both father, who has previously scorned political dynasties, and son have denied that. Neither responded to Reuters' requests for interviews.

Nevertheless, Mukhriz Mahathir's election to a top party post would be seen as bolstering the conservative wing of the party.

At 49, young by UMNO leadership standards, Mukhriz is less strident than his father, largely untested and has yet to set out a comprehensive political vision.

"I am happy to continue with the struggles for the party and the country, but I have my own ideas," Mukhriz was quoted as saying by state-run news agency Bernama.

His victory in the internal party polls is far from assured, but would mark Mukhriz out as contender for leadership of the party that has ruled since independence from Britain in 1957 and has produced all of Malaysia's prime ministers.

It could also add to uncertainties for investors at a time when Malaysia's high fiscal deficit and growing debt have put the government under pressure to step up the pace of reform.

"It is hard to figure how much is just rhetoric ahead of the party election, but it is an area of concern," said Chua Hak Bin, Singapore-based economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

As chief minister of northern Kedah state, known for its paddy fields and conservative Islam, Mukhriz has raised his profile this year. He has hewed to conservative positions, such as opposing the use of the word "Allah" by Christians - a touchy issue in Muslim Malaysia.

TRAILBLAZER OR PUPPET?

Mukhriz would have scant chance of success without the Mahathir name, which has powerful resonance for UMNO traditionalists pining for a return to the old certainties of strong economic growth and a weak political opposition. Yet even within the party there are doubts over what he stands for.

"Mukhriz might be a new face but he's hardly known as a progressive. Is he just his father's puppet? That's what people want to know," said one senior UMNO politician, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

May's election was the second straight poll in which the UMNO-dominated ruling coalition saw its parliamentary majority shrink as ethnic Chinese and urban voters abandoned it in favour of an opposition led by former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The elder Mahathir, a doctor by training, stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in power.

He regularly snipes at the government from the sidelines, opposing Najib's moves in recent years to liberalise tough security laws. Writing in the media recently, he said UMNO would soon "meet its demise" if not rejuvenated by fresh talent.

A recent survey found the elder Mahathir was the most popular figure within UMNO, with a 79 percent approval rating compared with Najib's 69.

Najib will remain unopposed as party leader but the crucial loss of the ethnic Chinese vote in the election has already forced him to backtrack on reforms he had said were crucial to modernise Malaysia and ensure strong economic growth.

Last month, he announced measures to bolster decades-old affirmative action policies for ethnic Malays. His government is also bidding to bring back harsh detention without trial laws, just two years after Najib repealed several draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act, which had been used to stifle government critics.

Educated at Boston University and Sophia University in Tokyo, Mukhriz was deputy minister of international trade and industry between 2009 and 2013. Before that he had a low-profile private sector career.

His recent rapid political rise began when he gave up his safe parliamentary seat to stand for an opposition-held state assembly seat in the May election. He won, helping to wrest Kedah state from the opposition.

"I think he's got a very good chance of winning. He can say, 'look I am young, I am not tainted', but of course he can also count on the influence his father's name brings," said Jayum Anak Jawan, professor of politics and government at Universiti Putra Malaysia. (Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel)

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