Malaysia's outgoing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad waves after meeting with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on February 24, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong

In a shock move with wide-reaching ramifications, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir tendered his resignation today (February 24), setting off heated speculation about his motives and where the country’s suddenly tumultuous politics are headed next.

The move followed an abortive bid by political forces purportedly loyal to Mahathir to dissolve the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and form a new one that would explicitly exclude his presumed successor, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim.

Crucially, Mahathir also stepped down as chairperson of his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), a key component of Pakatan Harapan.

The political situation remains fluid and uncertain, with possible scenarios ranging from anti-Anwar politicians bidding to form a new coalition government, a “hung parliament” where no political party or coalition commands a majority and thus forces a snap election, or Mahathir retaining the premiership for the foreseeable future.

Political uncertainty is already impacting investor confidence, with the local bourse tumbling 2.79% to its lowest level in more than eight years. Malaysian bonds and currency also suffered a blow, with the ringgit reportedly falling 0.9% on Monday, its sharpest slide in three years, to its lowest level in nearly six months.

Mahathir was initially widely assumed to be the mastermind of an attempt to sabotage his own democratically-elected PH coalition by joining forces with opposition parties, including the scandal-plagued United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), an adversary he supposedly sought to align with to form a new coalition.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attends a summit in Thailand on November 3, 2019. Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

Anwar implied as much in remarks on February 23, when he spoke of the betrayal of “promises” made, a reference to repeated vows by Mahathir to eventually step aside and hand power to him.

The prime minister-in-waiting had also accused “traitors” belonging to a renegade faction of his PKR party of plotting to form a new “backdoor” government with UMNO, PPBM and others.

Party leaders from opposition parties and sections of PH purportedly aligned to Mahathir convened on February 23 at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya, where an announcement on the formation of a new coalition was expected.

But the maneuver reportedly faltered when East Malaysia parties Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and hitherto PH-ally Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) backed away over objections to joining a coalition with the Islamist party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).

Anwar said after discussions with Mahathir on February 24 that he had neither approved of the bid to form a new coalition government, nor did he plan on joining any camps operating to that end. The PKR president said Mahathir’s name had been “used” by those plotting PH’s downfall.

“He (Mahathir) said and reiterated to me what he had said earlier, that he played no part in it and he made it very clear, that in no way will he ever work with those associated with the past regime,” Anwar said, referring to collaboration with an UMNO-led opposition whose leaders, including disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak, are on trial for massive corruption.

In earlier remarks by Anwar following a meeting at Mahathir’s residence, he said the nonagenarian leader reaffirmed the principles of PH’s reform agenda. The 72-year-old twice-jailed veteran politician also revealed that he had tried to persuade Mahathir not to resign as prime minister, but was unsuccessful.

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim arrives at the parliament house for tabling of the Budget 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, November 2, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Zahim Mohd

Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has reportedly accepted Mahathir’s resignation but also opted to reappoint him to hold the leadership in the interim, where he would retain the power to appoint cabinet ministers.

While the situation is still in flux, top PH leaders have signalled their endorsement of Mahathir becoming the country’s eighth prime minster in a new political configuration that can be cemented through a new parliamentary majority.  

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu of Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), said they would continue to fully support Mahathir as premier and coalition leader amid plans to nominate him to once again lead when the PH president council meets on Tuesday (February 25).

In remarks to the press, the DAP secretary-general chastized those attempting to orchestrate a backdoor government attempt and said that Malaysians felt “confused with all this manipulation, all this political chicanery,” comparing the political drama now unfolding in the country to the popular television series Game of Thrones.

Lim also said that Mahathir, unlike sections of PPBM and PKR, did not wish to work with UMNO and praised him for opposing a “nefarious attempt to subvert and undermine the people’s mandate.”

Still, amid all the political chaos, some observers continue to regard Mahathir’s resignation with suspicion, viewing it as a tactical ploy linked to a still unclear endgame.

Mahathir’s decision to relinquish his PPBM chairmanship, however, is believed to be linked to a dispute with the party’s president, Home Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who announced today that the PPBM would withdraw from PH, leaving the now-defunct ruling coalition with fewer numbers than legally required to form a government.

Muhyiddin Yassin (C), president of the PPBM, arrives at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on February 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

Muhyiddin, as some media reports claim, had championed cooperation with UMNO and other opposition parties with the aim of forming a new coalition to scupper Anwar’s succession.

The Straits Times, citing an unnamed source, reported that “Muhyiddin and gang went ahead” with its backdoor bid without approval to do so from Mahathir.

Some analysts regard the 72-year-old Muhyiddin, who was Najib’s deputy premier, as a possible prime ministerial contender should the opposition seek to put forward a broadly acceptable candidate. Although he has not actively sought the premiership in the past, some think he may reconsider if the political stars align in his favor.

Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid, an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, believes Mahathir “relinquished his chairmanship strategically in order for him to hold another major position, such as the president of the bigger coalition.”

The backing of lawmakers from Sabah and Sarawak could be key to enabling such a role. PH is now left with only 102 out of 222 seats in Parliament – short of the 112 seats needed for a simple majority – after 26 lawmakers from PPBM quit the coalition.

Eleven others belonging to a PKR splinter faction led by deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali also fled PH, which was due to mark its second anniversary in power in around three months.

Parliamentarians from East Malaysia parties who control a total of 56 seats are now veritable “kingmakers” capable of tipping the scale in either direction. But if no party or coalition is able to secure a simple majority, the Agong can opt to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and politician Anwar Ibrahim (L) leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Mustafa Izzuddin, an academic and political analyst, said “all the political jostling, maneuvering and realignment” could jeopardize PH’s chances of securing the needed numbers for a simple majority.

“One possibility is the dissolution of parliament followed by snap elections. Another possibility is the breakaway faction from PKR along with PPBM joining hands with the opposition parties, namely UMNO and PAS – the duo have formed a pact called Muafakat Nasional – to achieve a majority and then form the next government,” he said.

Malaysiakini reported citing an unnamed source that the Agong, who is the constitutional head of state responsible for appointing government leaders, could take up to 10 days to determine which coalition has the majority support to form the new administration.

Mahathir is slated to serve as the interim premier until that kingly determination is made; there is no timeframe for how long someone can remain in the interim role.

When Anwar, meanwhile, was asked by a reporter today whether he is still on course to become Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, he tersely replied: “We shall see.”

Mustafa believes that recent dramatic events aimed at thwarting his prime ministerial ascent are bound to bode ill for the iconic politician.

“Anwar’s chances of becoming prime minister have reduced dramatically after today’s sudden political announcements,” the Malaysian political expert said.  

“He has had an audience with the Agong, possibly to air his grievances and present his own plan to come out of this political mess. He is likely to go public with a re-run of the 1998 Reformasi movement if the alignments go against him.”

[Reporting from Singapore]