Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak (L) and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) could soon come together in a new "backdoor" coalition government. Photos: AFP

“Betrayal.”

That is the word Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim used to describe the seismic political realignment taking shape in Malaysia that could soon see the formation of a new coalition government that excludes his party.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which took power in May 2018, is widely expected to be dissolved following a tumultuous day of political intrigue and maneuvers to form a new federal government on February 23.

A series of meetings involving major political parties and a rival faction of PKR led by deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali eventuated in an audience with Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, fueling speculation of a “backdoor” bid to form a new ruling coalition that would reunite Mahathir with the long-ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO).

“We were shocked today by developments that, to me, were a betrayal because promises were made,” said the 72-year-old Anwar in a Facebook Live broadcast on Sunday evening, referring to repeated vows by Mahathir to eventually step aside and hand power to Anwar.

The 94-year-old premier, who previously served as prime minister atop an UMNO-led government from 1981-2003, now appears to have other succession plans.

Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad drinks a glass of water during a press conference, May 10, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/ Muhammad Shahrizal

As Anwar addressed supporters during a prayer ceremony held at his residence, he conceded that efforts to form a new government could materialize by Monday (February 24), a development that would deny him the premiership, send his loyal supporters to the streets and cast a tumultuous cloud of political uncertainty over Malaysia.

As speculation grips the nation, the multi-ethnic coalition’s rise that earlier seemed to herald a new democratic dawn for Malaysia looks set to die young, with the scandal-plagued UMNO and other component parties associated with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition toppled at the May 2018 polls poised to return to power.  

“This is really a backdoor coup,” said a PH coalition source who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity. “If they go down this route, this spells trouble for Malaysia going forward. I think the ‘old man’ (Mahathir) may be misreading the public reaction to all this. It will be 1998 all over again,” he said, referring to the “reformasi” street protests that erupted amid the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Read: Why Mahathir may not step aside for Anwar

The latest dramatic developments follow a PH presidential council meeting on February 21 that was expected to establish a date for Mahathir’s departure and Anwar’s rise as prime minister. But discussions ended in a stalemate after Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) 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, made a unanimous decision to allow him to choose when to step down. “What I say, they will follow… It is up to me whether to let go [of power] or not. That was the trust given to me,” Mahathir said.

Having emerged from the PH presidential council meeting in seeming full control of the succession, it is not clear what prompted Mahathir to initiate such a daring maneuver, which implies the dismantling of his own democratically-elected coalition government to block Anwar’s bid in collaboration with an UMNO-led opposition whose leaders, including disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak, are on trial for massive corruption.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2018 after being charged in court. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Rumors about the formation of a new coalition comprised of opposition parties and sections of PH aligned to Mahathir, a so-called “Pakatan Nasional” alliance, have been rife for weeks. Anwar had branded those rumors as “lies”, but recently admitted the existence of a campaign to support Mahathir serving a full five-year term.

Party leaders from Mahathir’s PPBM, ethnic Malay Muslim opposition parties UMNO, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) and Azmin’s faction in PKR convened on Sunday at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya, the same venue where PH leaders announced their surprise general election victory less than two years ago.

An “important announcement” was reportedly due to be made at the gathering, though none was made and attendees left the venue after dinner. Annuar Musa, UMNO’s secretary-general, told a reporter there that the grouping had not only clinched enough lawmakers to form a new coalition government but also a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

Anwar’s political secretary, Farhash Wafa Salvador Rizal Mubarak, confirmed that he met with other PH leaders late on Sunday evening and was quoted in media reports positing that efforts to form a “backdoor government” may not have been successful. “If it was successful they would have announced it. There’s nothing yet,” he said.

Mahathir himself has remained quiet, departing from a four-hour PPBM meeting on Sunday without holding a press conference or speaking to reporters. He was reportedly present when political leaders aiming to form a new coalition met the Agong, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, on Sunday at Istana Negara, the national palace.

Anwar and his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, have reportedly been granted an audience with the Agong on Monday (February 24).

Newly released Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim gestures during an interview with AFP at his house in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Azmin, his estranged deputy, told reporters on Sunday that his renegade faction would “continue this struggle for the reform agenda, to develop the country and bring prosperity to all Malaysians.”

“Mahathir has very clearly indicated to a lot of people, through his actions, that he intends to basically bypass Anwar and make Azmin the next prime minister,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. Azmin, who currently serves as economic affairs minister, holds what is regarded as Malaysia’s most powerful economic portfolio.

Azmin and Anwar have been at daggers drawn for months, but apart from mutually vying for prime ministerial power, the substance of their dispute isn’t entirely clear to analysts and observers. Azmin’s faction has accused Anwar of hypocrisy and dynastic politics, while the latter has implied that his deputy is a source of treachery within his party.

To form a new coalition, Mahathir would theoretically need the backing of 112 out of 222 parliamentarians, with each providing a signed “statutory declaration” affirming their support of his premiership, legal experts say.

Those declarations can then be presented to the Agong, who may then appoint a prime minister and swear in a new Cabinet.  The Agong, one PH source said, could delay the announcement of a new coalition to seek clarification on whether the statutory declarations are “real or not.”

“It’s not as simple as getting 112 signatures,” a PH coalition source said. “He needs to show around 120 to 125 because otherwise the Agong could question whether it would be a stable government. To prove his case, Mahathir has to deliver 120 to 125 statutory declarations to clearly demonstrate that he has the numbers to form a new government.”

PH’s parties now hold a parliamentary majority of 139 out of 222 seats. PKR is the largest party in the coalition with 50 lawmakers. Azmin’s faction is estimated at around 15 parliamentarians. Mahathir’s PPBM, or Bersatu, had just 13 lawmakers when PH took power, but presently boasts 26 owing to a steady stream of UMNO crossovers.  

“For the MPs who joined Bersatu after GE14 (the fourteenth general election in May 2018), especially the ex-UMNO MPs who jumped ship, they would want Dr. M (Mahathir) to stay on for as long as possible. Some joined Bersatu to help the party grow bigger in order to block Anwar’s ascent,” a source close to the PH coalition said.

Anwar Ibrahim (L) walks past Mohamed Azmin Ali (R) at a Parti Keadilan Rakyat event in a file photo. Picture: Twitter/Malay Mail/Hari Anggara.

Local media has been abuzz in recent days with reports of rival statutory declaration campaigns seeking signatures from lawmakers. One campaign sought support for Mahathir serving a full five-year term as premier, while the other affirmed PH’s agreement that power be handed from Mahathir to Anwar without a set timeline.

Dave Ananth, a former Malaysian magistrate, told Asia Times that the Agong could also opt to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections rather than allow a new government to be formed. “The people voted for political parties, manifesto and promises, thus a backdoor government will be the epitome of betrayal. This is a clear stab in the back,” he said.

If a new coalition is formed, it would do more than thwart Anwar’s prime ministerial ambitions. The ethnic Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP), currently the second-largest party in the PH coalition with 42 parliamentarians, would likely be cast aside along with its partners, PKR and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah).

“DAP has still been solidly supporting Anwar in his pursuit of naming the date for the transition, and it is the single largest bloc of MPs that is currently backing Anwar,” a separate source close to the PH coalition said. “The working relationship between Dr. M and some of the senior DAP ministers have also deteriorated.”

A new coalition between PPBM, UMNO and PAS would bring the three largest exclusively ethnic Malay Muslim parties together under a single banner in a bid to appeal to the country’s largest and most important vote bank. Analysts say such a reorientation could have negative implications for race relations in Malaysia.

Mahathir Mohamad (2nd R) and then opposition leader Wan Azizah, Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, (2nd L) display placards reading “Love Malaysia and Destroy Kleptocracy” during a rally organized by the Pakatan Harapan on October 14, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Chin said Chinese voters, about 95% of whom supported the PH coalition during the 2018 general election, would interpret a backdoor government which side-lined the DAP as a sign “that the Malay elites will never allow the Chinese to hold any significant political power.” Ethnic Chinese make up 24.6% of Malaysia’s total population.

“There will be pockets of people who are unhappy because it is a backdoor government, even though theoretically it is completely legal,” a PH coalition source told Asia Times. “There will be a lot of political backlash, there will be racial sentiment because a new government would be mostly devoid of Chinese and Indians.”

“In the medium to long-term, this government will be more Islamic, and more Islamization is going to spell trouble for in particular for foreign investors and also domestic investors, who are mostly Chinese,” the PH source, who requested anonymity, said. “This is just bad overall, and in addition to everything else, this is bad for the legacy of Mahathir.”

As of mid-morning Monday, the political suspense hung heavy in the air. The local bourse tumbled 2.2% in early trading when markets opened before paring some of its losses. The index was down by 1.48% as Asia Times went to press.

Anwar and PH federal ministers including his wife Wan Azizah, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng of the DAP and Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu of Amanah were scheduled to meet Mahathir at his office at 9:30 am in the morning. All reportedly left the venue an hour later amid a no-show by the nonagenarian premier.

And while speculation has reached fever pitch, no political leader or representative of the government has stepped up to allay fears of what many will inevitably see as democracy coming undone.  

[Reporting from Singapore]

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