TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad is starting to flex his muscles.
Those who thought that he was senile and had lost the plot are starting to realise that they have underestimated him.
The world’s oldest prime minister may not have the physical stamina but he is still on top of the game when it comes to out-manoeuvring his opponents.
His claim yesterday that PAS had agreed not to work with Umno in Semenyih has dealt a devastating blow to the Umno-PAS campaign in the by-election.
It was an explosive assertion that caused political ripples, especially among the key players in Semenyih.
He claimed that this came about during his meeting with PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and several PAS leaders.
The PAS side was completely blindsided. As far as they were concerned, the meeting with Dr Mahathir was about oil royalties during which the Prime Minister had complained about his DAP partner.
Two different accounts from each side – so who is telling the truth?
The truth will emerge eventually but what is clear for now is that Hadi has been outplayed by the Bersatu chairman.
“Two overhauls to his engine but he can still scheme and outplay these people,” said a Bersatu politician, alluding to the heart bypasses that Dr Mahathir has had.
Dr Mahathir has been in a combative mood the past one week.
He took in seven ex-Umno MPs last week knowing that his partners in Pakatan Harapan were against it.
Dr Mahathir hails from an era where gentlemen do not use bad words but what he did was akin to showing the middle finger to his partners.
He also gave Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal the proverbial slap in the face when he announced on Friday that his party would be going into Sabah.
The move goes against the wishes of the Warisan president. Shafie is said to be deeply upset and sees it as a stab in the back.
Pakatan, which won only 113 seats in the general election, would be teetering on the edge of a cliff without back-up from Warisan.
Shafie is the big boss in Sabah and his thinking is that there can only be one tiger on the hill. But now he has to share the hilltop with a bigger tiger.
“I don’t think Shafie will rock the boat. Sabah needs federal support and he cannot afford to play hardball,” said PKR politician Lee Chin Cheh.
Besides, said Lee, Warisan has three ministers in Putrajaya as well as several deputy ministers.
But ties between Warisan and Pakatan will be severely tested.
Why is Dr Mahathir so adamant about setting up base in Sabah?
Bersatu is seen as another Umno in Sabah while Dr Mahathir is known as “Bapa Projek IC”, a scandalous conspiracy to grant citizenship to Muslim illegal immigrants.
Well, size matters in politics and Dr Mahathir wants to absorb the ex-Umno leaders, especially those who are MPs, into Bersatu.
He needs them to build up his party’s profile ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle expected in May, after the government’s first anniversary in power.
The party now has 22 MPs and there are five more MPs from Umno in Sabah waiting to come on board.
There has been so much talk of multiracial parties being the way ahead for Malaysia but the reality is that many Muslims want to join a Malay-Muslim party.
They are not drawn to Warisan or PKR whose multi-ethnic structure is not their cup of tea.
This is the market that Dr Mahathir is planning to tap into.
According to a political insider, Dr Mahathir has been frustrated by his party’s inability to make inroads into Umno areas in the peninsula.
He thinks that it may be easier in Sabah. The value system in Sabah is different, they have no political ideologies and people there have no fixed political loyalties.
The political history of Sabah shows that its people are not afraid to go for change and to try out new parties.
The additional numbers will give Dr Mahathir greater clout in the ruling coalition and lend some credence to his dream of replacing Umno among the Malays.
Of course, many think that accepting crossovers from an enemy party does not equate to clout or strength.
The Chinese have a saying for this sort of borrowed strength – it is known as taking someone else’s backside to put on your face.
According to the political insider, Dr Mahathir has also been somewhat obsessed with controlling Sabah and Sarawak. He sees these states as a sort of final frontier.
Moreover, said the insider, Dr Mahathir has never governed without a two-thirds majority.
“I think he will only feel comfortable with a two-thirds majority. I sense he feels quite helpless surrounded by strange bedfellows,” said the insider.
All these political moves are perceived as part of Dr Mahathir’s grand design as the mid-point of his tenure approaches.
He is due to make way for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim by May next year.
Anwar in an interview with CNN implied that he is tired of being constantly asked about the succession and he wants to give Dr Mahathir the space to govern.
Anwar has only soft and friendly words for Dr Mahathir and prefers to spend his time looking after his Port Dickson constituency, giving talks and globe-trotting.
But in politics, calm waters can be quite dangerous.
There has been so much speculation that Dr Mahathir is grooming someone else to succeed him.
Too many people have come away from private meetings with Dr Mahathir claiming that he does not intend to pass the baton to Anwar. The Anwar circle, on the other hand, suggests that they have the numbers to make a move but they are playing it cool, waiting for Dr Mahathir to blink first.
There is also talk that “something” may happen at the next session of Parliament which starts in March and ends in April. But who will blink first?