Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives a speech at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 5, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum/ Vladimir Smirnov

The Pakatan Harapan coalition government in Malaysia has collapsed. Reports from several media outlets over the last few days suggested that something was imminent on the political front in Malaysia.

From one account, for example, Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest in the governing coalition, all but admitted that the split in the coalition was real and no longer mere speculation, saying “there were attempts to bring down the Pakatan government involving our former friend Bersatu and a small faction from PKR who has betrayed us.”

Now that Mahathir Mohamad has announced his resignation as prime minister, the country is once again embroiled in political uncertainty.

Speculations were rife for several days that there had been a falling-out between Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali, the deputy president of PKR, and that a number of lawmakers loyal to Azmin were expected to link up with others from Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) in an effort to form a new coalition government that would include the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), thus ostensibly sidelining the PKR and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which were the two main parties of the Pakatan Harapan coalition that were crucial to the historic defeat of UMNO in the 2018 general elections.

While not-so-clandestine meetings among several top officials of Bersatu, UMNO, PAS and a breakaway faction from PKR reportedly took place, what remains unclear, among other things, is what the make-up of the purported new coalition will be precisely and to what extent, if any, this plot had Mahathir’s blessing.

The demise of the Pakatan Harapan coalition simply drives home a clear imperative about Malaysian society that is undeniable. As much as this episode will be seen as the unfolding – yet again – of the often troublingly contentious, acrimonious, and sometimes combative personal and political saga between Mahathir and Anwar, it actually superficially – and conveniently – disguises a reality that the political edifice, one deeply shaped by Mahathir during his prior 23-year grip on power, is rooted in a fundamental contempt for the collective will of the rakyat (people).

Reflecting the ominous mood of what seems to be transpiring, one friend and observer of events, referring to the 14th general election of 2018, wrote in a note: “GE14 hijacked. Democracy is dead.” Indeed, it’s no surprise that given the reports that have thus far surfaced, many segments of the electorate, but in particular the majority of Malaysians who backed the Pakatan Harapan coalition, will see this as a profound betrayal of the people’s will and trust.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the end game for many within Bersatu and also Azmin’s faction of the PKR all along was never to hand off the premiership to Anwar. Mahathir’s re-entry to the political fray in 2017-18 – like a phoenix rising – served his immediate objective of orchestrating then-prime minister Najib Razak’s fall from power.

This, of course, required taking on the UMNO political establishment. Doing so also required, as now seems apparent, mending fences – albeit temporarily – with Anwar Ibrahim and the broader opposition coalition (such as the DAP).

Mahathir’s continued reluctance to hand off the premiership to Anwar – despite his repeated prior pronouncements – reflects a deeper ambivalence, if not a lack of intent, on his part to enable Anwar to succeed him; something that clearly has served the objectives of others in the Pakatan Harapan coalition who also seemed intent on sidelining Anwar. Yet, as recent developments have shown, several top brass within Bersatu may have blindsided Mahathir with their conspiring with UMNO and the breakaway faction in PKR.

In this respect, one is left at least to contemplate what Mahathir’s stance would have been if Azmin Ali and his PKR defectors had been able to garner the necessary support from others in Bersatu, UMNO and PAS to marginalize Anwar and any prospect of the latter succeeding the former. The fact that Mahathir also resigned as head of Bersatu suggests that he evidently did not endorse the renegades within Bersatu who seemed to have done a run-around and undermined him in the process. This is being corroborated by other reports.

This attempted coup will no doubt come as a vivid reminder to Mahathir that a number of his trusted allies within the Bersatu leadership (many of whom were of course transplants from UMNO) and Azmin Ali have in essence exploited his political capital and orchestrated this collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in order to hijack the succession plan Mahathir himself had consented to. This must no doubt have come as a rude awakening for him.

It does appear that in the days ahead, Mahathir will need to address this crisis in order to prevent a further deterioration of the political instability that has been manufactured, but also to shape the narrative for the wider Malaysian public.

The narrative that emerges from him and those within his inner circle, and whatever may persist as a government for now under his interim capacity as prime minister, will perhaps shed some more light on the details associated with this apparent long game among many within Bersatu and Azmin’s cabal vis-a-vis pre-empting Anwar Ibrahim from the premiership.

Regardless of how this crisis plays out, there is little doubt that the arrogance of many of the political elite blatantly to undermine the will of the people remains an entrenched aspect of Malaysia’s political culture.

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Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.