Malaysia's interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a press conference after unveiling an economic stimulus plan aimed at combating the impact from the COVID-19 novel coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya on February 27, 2020. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

SINGAPORE – The second anniversary of Malaysia’s first-ever democratic transfer of power was never meant to be a somber affair.

The reformist, multiracial Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition made history on May 9, 2018 when it won the support of voters weary of the long-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s endemic corruption and institutional racialism.

An alliance between elder statesman and long-time premier Mahathir Mohamad and his once bitterly estranged former protégé Anwar Ibrahim brought together unlikely bedfellows in a big umbrella coalition. Their hatchet-burying political triumph, however, was short-lived.

A political coup in February staged by both men’s deputies saw the PH coalition implode after just 22 months in power. But it’s not clear Malaysia has seen the last of Mahathir and Anwar as political and economic pressures build around the unelected, royally appointed Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who in a cruel twist is reliant on the support of BN’s scandal-plagued lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and its hardline Islamist ally, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), already faces a moment of political truth.

Now in the third month of his premiership, Muhyiddin has presided over one of the most turbulent periods in Malaysia’s post-independence history with an unexpected political transition prefacing an unprecedented public health crisis, one that has brought the military onto the nation’s streets to enforce coronavirus-curbing movement restrictions.

With daily infection rates in decline and the epidemic curve flattening, the Covid-19 pandemic has afforded Muhyiddin an opportunity to demonstrate grace under pressure, while also allowing him a degree of breathing space to stabilize his coalition through political patronage and appointments to government-linked companies (GLCs).

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

His political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, however, remains fiercely split between a faction loyal to Muhyiddin, its president, and Mahathir, its nonagenarian chairman, who rejects cooperation with UMNO and has indicated plans to wrest back control of the party to realign it with his previous PH coalition partners.

Muhyiddin’s party presidency is, moreover, being challenged by Mahathir’s son, Kedah state Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir. Resolving the rift democratically is off the table for now given that Bersatu’s leadership polls have been postponed indefinitely as a Covid-19 precaution, a delay that bodes ill for PN’s stability, political analysts say.

Mahathir, whose decades-long career has seen him bring down rivals and allies alike, says he intends to call a no-confidence motion in Parliament against Muhyiddin at the next available opportunity. If supported by a simple majority of lawmakers, the motion could lead to the dissolution of Parliament and a new general election.  

Parliament will convene on May 18 for the first time this year, though the government has truncated the sitting to a single day, citing Covid-19 concerns, after delaying an earlier planned meeting in March. The one-day session will deprive lawmakers of the opportunity to debate a no confidence motion and, crucially, buy Muhyiddin more time to shore up his support.   

The premier is believed to have a razor-thin parliamentary majority, though neither he nor Mahathir have publicly demonstrated that they have the numbers required to form a government. The earliest opportunity for tabling the motion, then, appears to be at the next parliamentary sitting slated to begin on July 13, which should last at least 15 days.

“It is also possible that the subsequent session of parliament will be deferred for as long as possible,” said Prashant Waikar, a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. “For the foreseeable future, PH may be reduced to issuing press statements rather than participating in formal policy debate.”

Parliament’s session later this month, in any case, will be historic for another reason: it is expected to be the first time ever that the ruling party’s highest leader – Mahathir – will be seated on the opposition bench after Anwar, who until February was expected to succeed Mahathir as premier, was named the PH opposition’s new leader on May 7.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

The new alignment, however, raises fundamental questions about the terms of cooperation between Mahathir and Anwar. The two erstwhile adversaries have publicly traded verbal salvos since the fall of PH, with Mahathir admitting he “has issues” with Anwar, who he recently described as adhering to a “liberal philosophy” and harboring an “obsession” to be prime minister.

“He has always been campaigning to get me to resign earlier,” Mahathir said of the opposition leader, who he publicly committed to hand power to on numerous occasions throughout his 2018-20 premiership. Analysts, however, interpreted his refusal to set a date for that transition as signifying a desire to thwart Anwar’s ascension.

Anwar, who at 72 is the same age as Muhyiddin, has in turn rebuffed claims that he was ever impatient for the premiership. “Who is crazy to continue to be PM at the age of 90 or 95?” he retorted in a recent interview.

“Mahathir has said certain things, Anwar has said certain things. There have been strong words uttered both ways. That’s the reality that we face,” said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, chief organizing secretary of the Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

“Both sides have ultimately been emphasizing that Bersatu is outside Pakatan at this point of time in spite of gestures from some leaders to kiss and make up.”

Sometimes compared to a Shakespearean drama, the hot-and-cold relationship between the two iconic politicians has shaped Malaysian politics for decades, to the detriment of needed generational change, some observers say. Whatever their antipathies, both view PN as a regime of “traitors” and appear pragmatic enough to partner against it, however uneasily.

PH has indicated that it would be willing to accept Bersatu back into the fold on condition that it agrees to abide by its reform agenda, presumably with Mahathir playing a mentor role and agreeing to support Anwar’s bid for the premiership in the next general election.

But the biggest stumbling block to that vision of cooperation is Mahathir himself, said a PH source who requested anonymity.

“Mahathir has never been happy with anyone else as prime minister, or even a strong deputy for that matter. His psyche is very much to dominate,” the source claimed. “For him to go to Parliament to be not only in opposition benches but not coming in as opposition leader, that would be something of a different experience for him.

Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir speaks to the press after winning election. Photo: Twitter

“In some of the discussions after the fall of Mahathir’s government, there was talk of putting Anwar in as prime minister and Mukhriz as deputy prime minister. Pakatan was willing to accommodate, but Mukhriz and Bersatu were not keen on it,” the same source added.

“Ultimately, Mahathir did not want to give way to Anwar, that is the difficulty. There cannot be two tigers on the mountain.”

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), sees Mahathir as intent on making a comeback, toppling his immediate predecessor Muhyiddin just as he ended the premiership of his graft-accused successor Najib Razak. “But he is equally adamant that Anwar doesn’t get to be PM,” said the analyst.

Adding to the political complexity is the fact that Muhyiddin himself has sought Mahathir’s blessing for his premiership, symbolically allowing the nonagenarian to retain his Bersatu chairmanship uncontested, even as the premier prepares to face off against Mukhriz in a contest for the party’s presidency. 

Informed sources told Asia Times that Muhyiddin’s decision not to appoint a deputy premier to his Cabinet was because he initially aimed to offer the post to Mukhriz in an olive branch to Mahathir. “The offer is not on anymore [since] Mukhriz has decided to go all out against Muhyiddin,” a separate source who requested anonymity said.

Muhyiddin has yet to appoint a deputy, a first in Malaysian administrative history, though Anwar’s estranged former deputy turned coup plotter, Mohamed Azmin Ali, has emerged as his designated second-in-command, apparently to the chagrin of other PN coalition partners who have telegraphed their dissatisfaction with the premier’s choice of appointments.

“Azmin and his circle of ex-PKR guys were heavily rewarded, with most ending up with a Cabinet position or at least a deputy ministership,” said PKR’s Nik Nazmi, who drew comparison with UMNO heavyweights such as party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and certain others with pending graft-related legal troubles who were left out of the Cabinet.

“For UMNO, for a party whose president had historically always been the prime minister, they don’t accept that easily. The party doesn’t take kindly that its hierarchy has not been respected.”

Azmin Ali (C) in a December 2019 file photo. Photo: Twitter

Senior figures with relatively cleaner records, such as UMNO’s deputy president Mohamad Hasan, were also not given roles in Muhyiddin’s government, he noted.

Hasan himself sent tongues wagging last month when he openly characterized PN as being politically expedient and pointed out in a statement that it is not a legally registered entity.

His remarks instead gave primacy to UMNO’s separate coalition partnership with PAS, Muafakat Nasional (MN), an electoral grouping that analysts see as increasingly capable of clinching big electoral gains – and even outright victory – in snap polls by appealing to conservative ethnic Malay Muslim voters who want UMNO returned to federal power.

“UMNO’s relationship with PN is only an understanding to save Malaysia from the political crisis triggered by a group within Pakatan Harapan on their own accord. In simple words, it is an understanding to form the government to govern Malaysia due to the failure of Harapan and nothing more,” Hasan’s April 25 statement said.

“As a political party, UMNO’s focus now is to prepare the party for the coming general election, together with its partners in Muafakat Nasional and BN,” the deputy president wrote in no uncertain terms. 

The clearest narrative to have emerged from UMNO in the eyes of Malaysia watchers is that the uneasy cooperation between Muhyiddin’s Bersatu and MN, along with its BN component parties, is a temporary marriage of convenience, one that may be dramatically cast to the wind at an electorally opportune moment.

Aerial view of UMNO’s assembly meeting, December 7, 2019. Photo: Facebook

“The implicit threat is that UMNO and PAS will only back Muhyiddin until the next election, whenever that may be,” said Waikar of RSIS. “Having said that, I am of the opinion that while UMNO is generally unhappy with its second-fiddle role. It still prefers being in government.”

SIAA’s Oh sees Muhyiddin as being caught between a rock and a hard place. “On the one hand, he has to face the opposition onslaught brought by Mahathir and PH. On the other, he has to contend with an UMNO which has grown increasingly discontent with his being at the helm of the government and Azmin being second in command,” he told Asia Times.

“UMNO and PAS would also likely win a snap general election if called in the near future, and if push comes to shove they could go for it as they have nothing to lose but everything to gain in a general election,” Oh added, spelling out a forecast that would sorely disappoint those segments of the electorate who celebrated PH’s election triumph two years ago.