Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad working in his office in Putrajaya, February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/Prime Minister's Office/Khairul Ariffin

Malaysia has been cast into political disarray following Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s shock decision on February 24 to resign as prime minister, a move that shattered his Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition and opened an unprecedented power vacuum in the Southeast Asian nation.

While simultaneously giving up and retaining power, Mahathir could now be in a position of strength amid indications he intends to form a national unity government. Though with allegiances in flux, the situation may yet go awry for the 94-year-old leader, who Malaysia’s king immediately named as interim premier following his resignation.

The political turmoil follows an abortive bid by political forces purportedly loyal to Mahathir to form a new coalition government that would have explicitly excluded his presumed prime ministerial successor, 72-year-old Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim.

But Mahathir, his coalition allies later attested, did not endorse maneuvers to form a “backdoor” coalition government that would have entailed joining hands with the scandal-plagued opposition party United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) and its allies, which the PH coalition toppled in a historic election in May 2018.

Among those championing the failed political coup are a PKR faction led by the party’s 55-year-old former deputy president, Mohamed Azmin Ali, who Anwar has since sacked and labelled a “traitor.” Azmin’s camp has said it was acting against an “evil attempt” by the party leadership to make Mahathir a “lame duck” prime minister.

“We took proactive steps to foil this conspiracy to depose the prime minister mid-term,” the now ex-PKR faction said in a statement, referring to behind-the-scenes pressure Anwar’s supporters allegedly put on Mahathir to publicly set a date for the promised leadership transition he has repeatedly avowed to honor.

Observers had earlier widely questioned Mahathir’s commitment to the handover given that he has arguably never offered a full-throated endorsement of Anwar.

Mahathir Mohamad (R) and Anwar Ibrahim (L) during the latter’s by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

That was underscored by his claim that the actual decision-making power to approve his chosen successor rests with Parliament, not himself. Many speculate that he, in fact, prefers Azmin as his successor.

According to a source close to Mahathir who offered Asia Times a detailed account of recent events, it was perceived pressure on Mahathir from Anwar’s camp that pushed political forces claiming loyalty to Mahathir to launch their backdoor bid without Mahathir’s blessing.

“Those who support Anwar wanted to hold street demonstrations if Mahathir did not set a timeline or did not step down by the second year as he promised, or what they think he had promised,” said the insider source, who requested anonymity. “Worse, because of those demands and threats and ultimatums, it created a reaction from the other side, and those who support Mahathir felt insulted.”

Ahead of a PH presidential council meeting on February 21 that was expected to establish a hard timeline for Mahathir’s departure and Anwar’s ascent, anticipation was rising “that there was going to be a very tense fight between the ruling coalition’s leaders, where demands and ultimatums would be made, creating a head-on crisis between Mahathir and the rest of the PH leaders,” the source said.

“Among the opposition, they saw [the meeting] as an opportunity to break up the ruling coalition,” said the insider. According to some accounts, discussions ended in a stalemate after Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, reportedly threatened to withdraw from the PH coalition.

At a midnight press conference following those talks, Mahathir said that no transition timeframe would be announced. PH leaders, he claimed, had made a unanimous decision to allow him to choose when to step down. The insider said Anwar’s camp had indeed been agreeable to Mahathir staying on and deciding when to step down.

“There was no crisis, it all ended amicably, so to speak. But it did not necessarily result from sincerity in the hearts of the [PH coalition] partners. They may have shown they were happy to accommodate him (Mahathir), but that doesn’t mean they have not been thinking of asking him to step down,” the same source told Asia Times.

A man holds a sign at a protest against a national government being formed without new elections at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“People from Anwar’s side probably knew the other side had enough numbers, and if they proceeded with their demand and threats, they (PKR and its allies) would lose,” the source said. “That would lead to a breakup, then there would be nothing stopping Bersatu [from] forging a new coalition with the so-called opposition and having a majority to take over the government.”

With the February 21 presidential council meeting having concluded seeing Mahathir seemingly in full control of the succession process, the insider said the backdoor maneuver being engineered by self-proclaimed Mahathir loyalists in anticipation of a major fracture in the PH coalition had lost both its raison d’etre and the premier’s support.

“Mahathir took the position that he can’t be forging an alliance with the likes of UMNO. He has always opened the door to UMNO members who are not under investigation, who are not identified as being corrupt,” said the source. “But, they are not supposed to come in en bloc, they are supposed to join Bersatu or any of the PH parties individually.”

If UMNO had joined a new coalition with Mahathir’s PPBM, Islamist opposition party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Azmin’s faction in PKR and other potential East Malaysian coalition partners in an alignment that was rumored to be taking shape, the once-dominant former ruling UMNO would have been the largest party in the grouping, with 42 lawmakers in Parliament. 

“UMNO would be getting back into power without even having to go through a general election. That was what made a lot of people realize that this coalition is just not viable,” said the insider.

However, the source continued, that did not stop the leaders of the backdoor bid from demanding that Mahathir become the leader of the said new ruling coalition. Leaders from PPBM, who the source acknowledged were wary of Anwar and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese-majority PH component party, supported the move but Mahathir did not.

“The reason he resigned as the chairman of Bersatu is because the party insisted that they should move forward and forge an alliance with the other parties and seek to form a new government. Basically, he would be handing the government over to UMNO, when they had all been all along fighting to stop UMNO’s continued reign over the country,” said the source.

“There was no reason for him (Mahathir) to want to create a new coalition when the PH coalition had already given their mandate to him,” the source said.

“[Mahathir] also does not want to lead a party that is grouped together with a bunch of crooks (UMNO). He said he may as well resign to prove a point that he is not doing all of this because he is crazy for power.”

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, attends the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and then UMNO leader attends the opening ceremony of parliament, Kuala Lumpur, July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

The source said that PPBM leaders had tried to convince Mahathir to join their bid by arguing that Anwar and his supporters in the DAP would continue “trying to topple him,” but Mahathir refused to go along. Despite that, the source said there is no bad blood between Mahathir and PPBM, despite his resignation as the party’s chairman.

PPBM’s Supreme Council, moreover, has unanimously rejected his resignation.

“It’s a matter of Mahathir being uncomfortable with the path they have taken. And those who were holding that stance had been pushing him too hard. He didn’t want to be part of it, this is one particular thing he couldn’t agree with. They kept on saying it was for the party, but it was Mahathir’s neck that was on the line and he who would be judged.”

With the PH coalition dissolved, the 94-year-old interim premier can now freshly assert his power with the backing of at least 112 members of Malaysia’s 222-member Parliament. Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is currently determining whether Mahathir can stake a claim to form a government.

“Mahathir is in a very unique position at this point in time, because he seems to be getting support from across the floor, both from the opposition and parties of PH. He alone seems to be enjoying that support,” said the insider. “That gives him an opportunity to form a new Cabinet which is based on his choice. So, in that sense, Mahathir has the upper-hand.”

Reports indicate that the nonagenarian seeks to draw rival parties together into a new government of national unity as a way of ending the current political crisis, a move that if realized could potentially free Mahathir from his earlier promise to hand power to Anwar, his former protégé who fell from grace after being hit with politicized sodomy charges during Mahathir’s earlier 1981 to 2003 premiership.

The insider told Asia Times that Mahathir had grown “uncomfortable with [Anwar’s] people demanding that he step down” and predicted the now interim leader would not be “too strictly bound” by earlier political alignments if given the mandate to form a new government.

“I would think Anwar would be part of any national consensus going forward. But the problem now is that it is not for him (Mahathir) to determine; it is for Anwar to prove that he is suitable and qualified to take over. Will Anwar be able to get a majority? That is the question that Anwar has to answer,” said the source. “It is still a numbers game.”

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong (R) and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) in a January 2019 file photo. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

UMNO, which had earlier pledged support for Mahathir’s leadership on Tuesday (February 25), reversed course after learning of Mahathir’s plan to form a unity government. In a press conference, UMNO secretary-general Annuar Musa said any support for Mahathir is contingent on the DAP being excluded from a new administration.

PAS, which has long sought to implement stricter sharia criminal laws in Malaysia, also said it would not join any coalition government that included DAP after similar pledges backing Mahathir’s leadership. UMNO’s secretary-general said the party hoped Parliament would ultimately be dissolved, paving the way for a new general election.

The Agong, who under the constitution must give assent to a prime minister on the basis of whether the candidate – who must be a lawmaker – can command a majority in Parliament, may also choose to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections if a government cannot be formed with a simple majority of 112 lawmakers.

What comes next could yield anything from a Mahathir-led national unity government comprised of key figures from both sides of the political divide, to a general election that brings to power Muafakat Nasional (MN), a pact between UMNO, PAS and other parties that would give rise to a new ethno-nationalist Malay Muslim coalition.

In an unprecedented move to determine who has majority support under the constitution, the Agong will personally interview each lawmaker in Parliament to hear their statements of support for a prime ministerial candidate to form a new government, a process that could see Mahathir become the country’s eighth prime minister. 

“At the moment Mahathir is the only one who can do it,” said Dave Ananth, a former Malaysian magistrate who praised the Agong for following the “correct procedure” to resolve the situation.

“As far as I know there is no precedent for this at the federal level. He has obviously been advised by the Attorney-General and other constitutional law experts.”

If Mahathir receives the Agong’s assent and proceeds to form a new government, he would have “absolute discretion to decide on the members of his Cabinet,” said Ananth. “He now has a clean slate to get rid of the thorns in his back. I hope he puts the country right this time, once and for all.”

[Reporting from Singapore]