Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad delivers a press briefing from the party headquarters of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) on May 29, 2020. Photo: Twitter

SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad may be down, but the 94-year-old political veteran is not yet out.

Mahathir was sacked on Thursday (May 28) from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, the governing party he co-founded in 2016 and led to victory in 2018’s general election, heralding the nation’s first-ever democratic transfer of power.

His dismissal from the party, along with his son Mukhriz Mahathir and three others, is the latest ante-upping twist in a bitter intraparty feud pitting Mahathir loyalists against supporters of incumbent Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Muhyiddin, a mild-mannered machine politician who served as a minister in Mahathir’s previous two governments, was royally appointed as the nation’s leader following a political crisis in February that saw Mahathir tender his resignation.

In a theatrical show of defiance, the nonagenarian elder statesmen made a surprise visit to the party’s headquarters on May 29, in which he sat at his desk and dared Bersatu officials to personally inform him that he had been expelled.

In his now disputed capacity as Bersatu chairman, Mahathir said that the party would in fact be bringing a motion to sack Muhyiddin, its current president.

Analysts view the escalating feud as a harbinger of further political instability that could lead to outcomes as varied as Muhyiddin successfully consolidating his rule, or, alternatively, to his four-month-old government’s collapse under a new wave of defections that could trigger fresh elections.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin taking the oath as new national leader at the National Palace, Kuala Lumpur, March 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Famer Roheni

The deepening factional divide comes at a time when authorities are preoccupied with the battle against Covid-19, which has put the Southeast Asian nation under a military-enforced lockdown that critics increasingly say is being exploited by Muhyiddin as a pretext to erode democratic norms and consolidate power.

After sidestepping Mahathir’s plans to table a motion of no-confidence in his leadership earlier this month by truncating Parliament’s sitting to a single day as a supposed health precaution, Muhyiddin’s bid to purge Mahathir’s camp casts a shadow over upcoming Bersatu party polls, which observers had viewed as the first real test of his legitimacy and staying power.

Though party elections have been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus, Muhyiddin’s hold on Bersatu’s presidency was set to be challenged by Mukhriz, who was recently deposed as chief minister of the state of Kedah in a political tit-for-tat.

The party’s expulsion of Mahathir and his loyalists came as little surprise to observers amid rife housecleaning rumors.

“This was just a question of how to stop the internal polls from proceeding, sacking Mukhriz being the most viable option,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore. “Mahathir and his loyalists will not rest easy and will mount a political fightback along with their allies until such time they return to government.”

Gatecrashing a planned briefing by Hamzah Zainuddin, Muhyiddin’s home affairs minister, on the reasons for Mahathir’s and his key allies’ expulsions, the ex-premier held his own press conference at party headquarters on Friday, where he dismissed the legitimacy of termination letters he and his supporters received.

At a rescheduled briefing, Hamzah said Mahathir and his four allies weren’t sacked, but had their membership automatically nullified for breaching the party constitution by sitting on opposition benches in Parliament on May 18. Mahathir remains allied with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition bloc, which governed the country under his leadership for just 21 months.

Muhyiddin had been home affairs minister in PH’s Mahathir-led government, though he broke away from his allies and partnered with the corruption-tainted United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – which PH defeated at the ballot box – in an engineered power grab that brought his unelected Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition to power.

Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad appears before the press at PPBM headquarters on May 29, 2020. Photo: Twitter

Bersatu was founded as a political alternative to UMNO, which Mahathir’s camp has refused to align with due to accusations of kleptocracy and abuses of power by its top leaders. The nonagenarian is now dialing up the pressure on Muhyiddin, who he labels as a “traitor” at the helm of “a partial dictatorship.”

The sharp rhetorical jabs deployed against Muhyiddin are as pointed or arguably more so than those Mahathir voiced in his historic campaign to unseat ex-premier Najib Razak, a former protegé he labelled as a “thief” and prosecuted for corruption after taking power for the second time in 2018.

“Mahathir had every intention to be the proverbial thorn in Muhyiddin’s side,” said Saleena Saleem, a PhD candidate in sociology and teaching fellow at the University of Liverpool. “Regardless of whether Muhyiddin was confident in his position or not, he saw an opportunity to cut the thorn from his side, and he took it.”

In a statement addressing the controversy, Muhyiddin said on May 30 that the party was “certainly disappointed” that Mahathir and his supporters “have chosen to keep cooperating with Pakatan Harapan” despite Bersatu’s supreme council deciding otherwise.

“If that is Tun’s decision, I wish them well,” he said, referring to Mahathir’s honorific title.

Despite being effectively sacked, Mahathir maintains that he is still Bersatu’s chairman. Haniff Khatri Abdulla, Mahathir’s lawyer, said the nonagenarian will appeal the nullification of his Bersatu membership with the Registrar of Societies (RoS), a regulatory department under Muhyiddin-loyalist Hamzah’s Ministry of Home Affairs.

The two camps also dispute who holds the party’s secretary-general position, with Muhyiddin’s faction recognizing Hamzah and Mahathir’s side backing Marzuki Yahya, a senator who served as deputy foreign minister under the PH government. Despite being sacked in March, Marzuki has continued to issue statements as Bersatu’s secretary-general.

“It is very obvious that Mahathir is very bitter. He will stop at nothing to pull down Muhyiddin and the PN government,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “Bersatu’s chairmanship is also not a symbolic position, but actually a very powerful position in the party. Basically, Muhyiddin has to sack Mahathir.”

Current Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Mahathir told reporters on Friday (May 29) of plans to bring a motion to sack Muhyiddin at a future meeting of the party’s supreme council, which he would preside over as chairman. He accused the premier of doing several “wrong things” such as appointing Hamzah as party secretary-general and ordering party members to take actions that exceed their authority.

“Mahathir and his faction are in an all-out battle right now to ensure their continued relevance in Malaysian politics,” said Seleena. “Without Bersatu, Mahathir and his faction will have to be independents in Parliament, and this is why they are ferociously challenging the membership terminations.

“As independents, they may well be aligned with PH, but they lose their ability to influence decisions within the PH coalition as had been the case when they were with the PH government. The optics of being absorbed into one of PH’s component parties would also damage their legitimacy in the eyes of a large segment of the Malay ground,” she added.

Many of those who have shifted their allegiances to PN had grown distrustful of the former PH government’s management of ethno-religious issues during its truncated tenure, the analyst noted. Bersatu supporters, she said, may also be wary of switching allegiances given the prevailing uncertainty around the nonagenarian’s no-holds-barred comeback bid.

While Mahathir’s supporters view the current iteration of his struggle as a legacy-restoring fight for Malaysia’s future, analysts are divided over whether his counter-offensive to seize control of Bersatu will succeed in overcoming the political odds, with some seeing his February 24 resignation, widely interpreted as ploy to reassert power, as a fatal misstep.

But with a storied reputation of outmaneuvering his rivals and thwarting his successors, Mahathir has long lived by the sword and is apparently determined not to die by it. What appears increasingly clear, however, are expressions of diminished sympathy for Mahathir returning to the fold as national leader among Malaysians on both sides of the political divide.

Calls for him to bow out of national politics and retire rather than plot a political comeback in the midst of a pandemic have been voiced online by PN supporters, while PH supporters regard his penchant for political dominance with rising unease. Some blame his reluctance to hand power to his anointed successor, veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, as the underlying reason for PH’s demise.

Opposition leader and long-time prime ministerial hopeful Anwar said in a Facebook Live broadcast on Friday that PH – which has welcomed continued cooperation with Mahathir – is in discussions on determining who will serve at its next candidate for prime minister, and that “what is important is not to repeat our past mistakes.”

Politician Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves after a press conference at the People’s Justice Party headquarters in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“[The remark] is an allusion to Mahathir,” said Saleena, “which indicates to us that PH leaders may not be willing to give as much space to Mahathir as they had done in the past. The argument that there may be some electoral benefits that PH may get from leveraging on Malay [voter] sentiments [toward] Mahathir is evidently less persuasive now.”

“Some have argued that the PH government’s reform agenda was undercut with Mahathir at the helm as PM, so they actually want less of Mahathir’s involvement now moving forward,” she told Asia Times. While analysts view the Anwar-Mahathir alliance as a necessary compromise, the precise terms of their future collaboration are not clear.

Rumors are rife that both men are actively lobbying PN lawmakers to defect to their side in order to garner enough support to retake the government. Two PN ministers were alleged to be announcing their defections on Friday, prompting intense speculation of a hung parliament, which would deprive Muhyiddin of his razor-thin majority and potentially force new elections.

While those defections never materialized, the episode underscored the fragility of Muhyiddin’s thus-far turbulent premiership, which is believed to have the support of just 114 of 222 lawmakers, one of the slimmest majorities in the nation’s history, after being buoyed by support from UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a hardline Islamist party.

“As long as UMNO and PAS want to hold up the government, it is very difficult to remove Muhyiddin, especially if the Registrar of Society supports Muhyiddin in that Mahathir is no longer a member of Bersatu,” Chin remarked. “The only other way is a no-confidence vote, but Mahathir would have to wait until July for the next parliamentary sitting.”

Mustafa, of Solaris Strategies Singapore, believes Malaysia could soon face a hung parliament scenario, whereby no political party or coalition has the majority of legislators needed to form a government. That would spur fresh elections, with Malaysia’s constitutional monarch appointing an interim caretaker government that would remain in place until polls are held.

“Neither side is willing to back down for the sake of the country and its people,” said the analyst. “This continued intense political tussle of bruised egos and personalities will engender political instability, social anxiety and economic uncertainty, which are undesirable when the country is battling the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.”