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During Mahathir Mahathir’s era in power, Malaysia leapt ahead economically, but was considered the most repressive Southeast Asian country outside of Communist Vietnam and military-ruled Myanmar.BAZUKI MUHAMMAD/Reuters

Malaysian politics have long featured dramatic, sometimes absurd, twists. This is a country where top government officials are under investigation in the United States (although not in Malaysia) for money laundering, and where the main opposition leader is in jail following a trial referred to locally as "Sodomy II."

But few could have imagined an election such as the one expected here early this year. The campaign will see the country's long-time autocratic ruler, Mahathir Mohamad, recast as the man who just might bring an end to six decades of one-party rule in the country.

Mr. Mahathir was often branded a dictator during the 22 years he spent as Malaysia's prime minister, ruthlessly repressing his political opponents. During Mr. Mahathir's era in power, Malaysia leapt ahead economically, but was considered the most repressive Southeast Asian country outside of Communist Vietnam and military-ruled Myanmar.

Mr. Mahathir apologizes for none of these. But at age 92, he's nonetheless reinvented himself as a democracy-minded opposition leader. Now, it's Mr. Mahathir who complains about the authoritarianism of those in power. His primary target is his long-time protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Veterans of Malaysia's reform movement, many of them bitter critics of Mr. Mahathir – some of whom were jailed for their opposition to him – now find themselves lining up behind their long-time nemesis. They're hoping a familiar face can win over rural Malay voters who have traditionally supported the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the party that has ruled Malaysia since it gained independence in 1957. In turn, UMNO, under both Mr. Mahathir and Mr. Najib, pursued policies that openly favoured ethnic Malays over the country's Chinese and Indian minorities.

The marriage of convenience between Mr. Mahathir and his former opponents is an awkward one. "For me – for many people – we're actually not happy with him because he did not renounce his past," said Wong Chin Huat, a veteran democracy activist who organized his first street protests during the latter years of Mr. Mahathir's role. "I don't think it's possible for me to convince him of my interpretation of the past. But on the future, we can agree."

Only up to a point. While the opposition has consented to fall in behind Mr. Mahathir and his Save Malaysia movement for the coming election, cracks emerge on the question of what would happen if the opposition were to win the vote.

Some say they expect Mr. Mahathir – who appears to be in robust health and claims he can still wear the same clothes that fit him 30 years ago – would return to the prime minister's post just ahead of his 93rd birthday.

Others say that whoever becomes PM, they should only stay in office only long enough to pardon veteran opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim – who was jailed in 2015 on a sodomy charge widely viewed as politically motivated – and to clear the way for Mr. Anwar to take the top job.

The only thing the various factions agree on is the need to defeat UMNO and depose Mr. Najib.

UMNO and its allies have been in power so long that the political party has in many ways merged with the state. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating an unnamed "Malaysian Official 1," identified in U.S. media as Mr. Najib himself, who is accused of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from Malaysia's massive state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, known as 1MDB into his personal accounts and those of his political allies.

While UMNO's popularity is in long-term decline, an UMNO-led coalition has managed to retain power thanks to a first-past-the-post electoral system that over-represents voters from UMNO's rural Malay heartland while under-representing the more ethnically mixed urban centres.

That's where the opposition hopes Mr. Mahathir can help. While voters in Kuala Lumpur remember him as an autocrat who stifled dissent, he's regarded in the countryside as an independence hero who led the country through a period of sustained economic growth. He's also one of the founding fathers of UMNO.

"Whatever you say about him, we need someone to shake UMNO and in this he can play a key role," political analyst Abdul Aziz Bari said. "Many UMNO voters voted for Najib because Mahathir was in the background. Mahathir's presence in the opposition makes voters think twice about why they are supporting UMNO."

The opposition's path to victory is still far from clear. The furor over 1MDB – which brought tens of thousands onto the streets in protests in 2015 and 2016 – has started to fade. Mr. Najib's personal approval ratings, which bottomed out near 30 per cent, have recovered about 10 points since then.

There are also fears Mr. Najib might resort to election-tampering, or even declare a state of emergency, if he feared he were about to lose power.

It might not come to that. The Malaysian Islamic Party, which was part of the opposition coalition in the 2013 election, has since broken away, setting up a three-way fight that could help UMNO and its coalition partners retain seats in the conservative rural areas.

And the opposition's best campaigner, Mr. Anwar, will miss the campaign while serving his five-year prison sentence.

Mr. Anwar's trial was known locally as Sodomy II, because it was the second time he had faced such charges. Mr. Mahathir used the same law in 1998 to sideline Mr. Anwar, shortly after firing Mr. Anwar as his deputy prime minister and finance minister, after the two men fell out over how to manage the Asian financial crisis. Mr. Anwar was badly beaten while in prison and later required back surgery.

It's an episode Mr. Mahathir's new allies in the opposition haven't forgotten or forgiven. Rafizi Ramli, the vice-president of Mr. Anwar's People's Justice Party, said his party is working on the expectation that Mr. Anwar would be pardoned and eventually made prime minister if the opposition were to take power. "The only issue is how quickly," he said, suggesting Mr. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah – who leads the opposition in parliament – could serve as PM on an interim basis to ensure that her husband's pardon is fast-tracked.

Mr. Rafizi wrinkled his nose when asked how he felt to have to co-operate with and trust Mr. Mahathir.

"Hate is probably too strong a word. But to me, I cannot read what he has in his mind, in his heart. Does he believe in reforms now? Or it just political expediency on his part?" Mr. Rafizi said. "To be frank, I don't expect [Mr. Mahathir] to apologize. What's past is past. History will judge him."