Malaysian politicians Anwar Ibrahim (L) and Mahathir Mohamad (R) suddenly find themselves in the opposition. Photo: Twitter

KUALA LUMPUR – A high-stakes political impasse in Malaysia, with interim leader Mahathir Mohamad and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim making separate bids to power, promises more twists and turns that could eventuate in the formation of a new government or snap polls.

The multiracial Southeast Asian nation was thrust into sudden turmoil when Mahathir resigned on February 24 in the fallout of a failed attempt by his purported supporters to form a new coalition government to block a promised transfer of power to Anwar.

The backdoor move caused the collapse of Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and opened a power vacuum that both veteran politicians are now bidding to fill.

In a televised address to the nation on February 26 as newly appointed “interim” premier, 94-year-old Mahathir explained the factors behind his decision to resign and apologized for the political discord now roiling the nation.

The world’s oldest leader proposed a new national reconciliation government comprised of leaders from both sides of the nation’s political divide, a configuration that could allow him to wield greater authority than previously to hold Anwar’s bid to power at bay.

“Politics and political parties need to be put aside for now,” said Mahathir in his first public statement since the crisis erupted. “I propose a government that is not aligned with any party, but only prioritizes the interests of the country. If I am given the opportunity, I would establish a government that sides with no party. Only national interest will be prioritized.”

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

But a day after three PH parties pledged their continued support for Mahathir’s leadership, the grouping reversed course on February 27 to back 72-year-old Anwar as their prime minister candidate despite falling short of the numbers needed to form a government with a simple majority.  

If neither Mahathir nor Anwar can garner the numbers for a parliamentary majority, an increasingly likely outcome say analysts, a fresh general election will be the only way to break the deadlock. The power to determine what happens next now rests with Malaysia’s constitutional monarch.  

“What we are witnessing is an intense power struggle or standoff brewing between the Mahathir camp and the Anwar camp,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, an academic and political analyst. But, by ostensibly maneuvering out of a commitment to hand power to his former protégé, the analyst believes Mahathir “has gotten the outcome that he favors.”

The three remaining parties of the PH coalition issued a statement saying it had invited Mahathir – whose Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, on Monday withdrew from the grouping amid the political tumult –  to chair its presidential council meeting.

However, Mahathir declined to attend, leading them to select Anwar as their candidate instead.

Though a statement released by lawmakers with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic-Chinese majority PH component party, said unambiguously that it opted for Anwar over fears that a “reconciliation” coalition would lead to “a Mahathir government and not a PH government.”

“Mahathir [said] he wanted to form a ‘unity government of individuals.’ This means that only Mahathir will decide who will be cabinet ministers. DAP and other political parties will not be consulted in the process,” the statement read.

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

Some observers have raised similar concerns that Mahathir’s bid to lead a non-partisan unity government would amount to “personal rule” and a concentration of power in the hands of a man who many viewed as an autocrat during his previous 1981-2003 tenure as national leader.

“In addition,” according to the DAP, “the proposed Cabinet from Mahathir will likely include the same personalities who triggered the current crisis.”

That is likely a reference to Mohamed Azmin Ali, who was sacked as deputy president of Anwar’s PKR and labelled a “traitor” after spearheading an abortive effort to form a new “backdoor” coalition government with ethnic Malay Muslim opposition parties United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Some speculate that 55-year-old Azmin, who openly called for Mahathir to continue as premier rather than making way for Anwar while he was still in the latter’s party, is actually Mahathir’s preferred successor.

He and 10 other former PKR lawmakers from his splinter faction, now an independent bloc in Parliament, have pledged support for Mahathir along with PPMB, which holds 26 parliamentary seats.  

The political fortunes of PPBM president Muhyiddin Yassin, under whose leadership the party withdrew from PH and cooperated with moves to form a backdoor government without Mahathir’s blessing, now appear to hinge on the success of the interim premier’s unity bid.    

“Essentially, Mahathir would like to pick and choose those whom he thinks could work well with him from across the political divide,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “Nowadays you don’t talk about long-lasting coalitions in Malaysia, you talk about marriages of convenience.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) raises up Anwar Ibrahim’s hand during by-election campaign, in Port Dickson on October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

The reversal by the three PH parties follows a similar volte face by UMNO and PAS, who cooperate in a pact called Muafakat Nasional (MN). It has already rejected Mahathir’s unity government proposal after earlier this week voicing support for him. The two opposition parties have since reached a consensus to press for new elections.

“Anything can happen. Nobody knows what is going on except traffic cops, plenty of U-turns,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute.

Determining who may emerge as the next prime minister or whether a snap poll is called instead depends on Malaysia’s 60-year-old king, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, a royal from the state of Pahang who was elected to the largely ceremonial post last year after his predecessor abdicated, a first in Malaysian history.

The constitutional monarch has opted in an unprecedented move to interview all 222 elected members of Parliament to determine which potential candidate for the premiership commands a majority in Parliament needed to form a government.

It was not clear when Asia Times went to press if the interviews, which began on February 25, had been concluded.

Lawmakers who have already been interviewed by the Agong said they were given a form on which to indicate their choice of prime minister, or whether they would prefer parliament to be dissolved.

The Agong may opt to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections if no party or coalition is able to secure a simple majority requiring 112 seats. No timeline has been announced for when that decision will be made.

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (R) eats as he hands out packages of fast food to reporters standing outside the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Syaiful Redzuan

“Plainly, neither side is ready to announce they have the required numbers to form a government,” Amrita Malhi, a research fellow at Australian National University (ANU), told Asia Times.

“Anwar and his allies have been projecting confidence the last few days. On one level, of course they would do that, as it’s useful to them. Yet on another, they do seem to feel confident enough to force this now public discussion of who should be prime minister,” said the academic.

“The confrontation that has been brewing since the government first formed is at least out in the open now, however, as both Mahathir and Anwar have issued public statements outlining the nature of the standoff. Now that PH has proposed Anwar as their preferred prime minister, it’s unclear how long this situation will continue,” she said.

All 92 PH lawmakers have reportedly declared their support for Anwar’s bid, a development that, when factoring in reversals from UMNO and PAS, could deprive Mahathir of the numbers he needs to form his so-called national unity government and lead to a hung parliament where no candidate commands a clear majority.

“Anwar is taking a big gamble to form a minority government,” said political analyst Wong Chin Huat, “but he may not secure it without having ‘confidence-and-supply’ deals from others,” referring to an informal agreement between political parties that would allow a minority government to hold power based on the Westminster system.

“I don’t think the constitution is clear enough on the legality of a minority government,” said Mustafa, “but we are after all in uncharted territory where anything is possible. The king may, however, instruct Anwar to get more MPs aligned with him so as to secure a simple majority.”

Constitutionally, the Agong cannot act with total freedom, according to Dave Ananth, a former Malaysian magistrate, and must appoint a lawmaker “capable of commanding the confidence” of the majority – that is, at least 112 members of Parliament out of a total membership of 222.

Anwar Ibrahim after a press conference at his PKR’s headquarters in Petaling Jaya, February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“In terms of how much power the Agong has, that is subjective. The term used is that he must be ‘satisfied’, that a parliamentarian has the support of the majority,” said Ananth. He suggests that a kingly determination in support of a minority government is possible should such an arrangement be realized.

Mahathir was summoned to the Istana Negara, the national palace, for an audience with the Agong on Thursday (February 27) morning, fueling speculation he may have the necessary support to form the next government. The interim premier did not address the media after leaving the palace an hour later.

Given the fractious state of Malaysia’s politics, it is not clear whether a minority government or a unity government of individuals, neither of which has any historical precedent in the country, can serve as a viable solution to the volatile impasse that has shattered PH’s rule just 22 months after it won power in a historic May 2018 general election.  

“There is no reason to assume that a national unity government would unify the nation or be immune to the power struggles that have affected the government that just dissolved. The more interesting question is why the idea of a national unity government is so popular right now as a purported solution to the problem,” said Malhi.

“One group of parties has won an election and another has not. They do not all command the same amount of legitimacy. This is precisely why Mahathir refused to accept UMNO and PAS as parties in any new government…Everyone will be thinking about numbers, of course, but they will also be thinking about legitimacy,” said the academic.