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

SINGAPORE – Nearly four months after losing power in a backroom political maneuver, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition’s efforts to reclaim the electoral mandate it won at historic 2018 elections have hit a wall.

An impasse over who should lead a potential new government if PH is able to resume control through defections in parliament has brought the political alliance’s many fault lines into clear view.

Intrigue and ambiguity over a tacit agreement for then-premier Mahathir Mohamad to hand power to his former deputy and rival Anwar Ibrahim pervaded the multi-racial coalition’s 22 months in power, a factor that analysts say contributed to its dramatic collapse in February.

PH’s quest to return to federal power and unseat Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s ethno-nationalist Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition is now in disarray over a failure by its component parties and allies to reach a consensus over their candidate for the premiership.

The impasse comes amid talk of a snap general election being called as early as this year, wherein PN would seek to win an electoral mandate and silence PH criticism that Muhyiddin’s government lacks democratic legitimacy.

Two opposing visions of Malaysia’s future will be on the ballot whenever those polls are held, say insiders from the competing camps. One envisions a multiracial leadership and a preeminent Malaysian national identity, while the other aspires to an invigorated race-based nationalism with ethnic Malays firmly at the political center.

PH’s component parties, preferring to return to power through parliamentary means, have attempted to mobilize a countercoup in recent weeks. Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) have both pushed for bringing Mahathir, who will be 95-years-old in July, back as prime minister for an unprecedented third term.

Mahathir Mohamad at an international summit in Bangkok, November 3, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

In a statement issued on June 22, both PH parties said they sought an acceptable common ground in Mahathir returning to the premiership for six months before handing the reins to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar, who would serve as his deputy premier, a formula they insisted this would offer a “realistic option of success.”

“This political journey has taken 22 years, we can afford to wait another six months to see Anwar installed as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia,” read the statement. “The six-month transition [from Mahathir to Anwar] shall be documented in writing, signed by all party leaders and publicly announced.”

Anwar, who is PH’s chairperson, has rejected the offer to serve as deputy premier under Mahathir – a post he held from 1993 to 1998 – and claimed during a June 21 Facebook Live broadcast that he and his supporters “cannot trust [him] 100%” after the nonagenarian neglected to fulfil an earlier pledge to eventually hand him the premiership.

PKR maintains that Anwar should be prime minister, though the party’s central leadership council said it remains open to talks with all parties, including a splinter faction of Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, which is loyal to Mahathir, who is the governing party’s disputed chairman. 

“The challenge for all of us in the opposition is how do we come together,” said lawmaker and DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.

“We are, unfortunately, divided by the same problem. That is, the forces aligned to Mahathir and the forces aligned to Anwar do not see eye to eye. The forces aligned to Anwar are blaming Mahathir for the failures of the last government, and that is unfortunate,” he told Asia Times. “Mahathir and Anwar will have to come together. If they fail to come together, then we are losing it.”

Anwar has signalled that he takes no offense in Amanah and DAP’s strategic support for Mahathir, which he likened to a difference in opinion premised on the notion that the elder statesmen is more palatable to East Malaysian parties whose support is necessary for a parliamentary majority needed to form a “PH Plus” government.

“Some believe that Mahathir can get the numbers, but to this day it has not materialized,” remarked Anwar during a recent livestream. PH is believed to have the support of 107 lawmakers, just short of the 112 needed for a simple majority. Muhyiddin is said to have the slimmest governing majority – 114 members of Parliament – in Malaysia’s history.

The 72-year-old opposition leader maintained his coalition partners’ support for Mahathir was a means to an end, bringing about a long-sought Anwar premiership. Serving under Mahathir for a six-month window, Anwar lamented, would only lead to renewed speculation about the promised handover of power once again.

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

“He has served twice as prime minister. It’s time that we move on. I emphasize that it’s not a question of personality. It’s a question of an opportunity to begin anew, a fresh start for this country,” said Anwar in a June 22 interview with Channel NewsAsia in which he left options open for Mahathir serving in a senior or mentor minister capacity if PH returns to power. 

Amanah and DAP acknowledged in their statement that Mahathir’s camp and Parti Warisan Sabah, an East Malaysian opposition party aligned with PH, rejected an alternative proposal in which Anwar would be the pact’s candidate for premier with Mahathir’s 55-year-old son, disputed Bersatu president Mukhriz Mahathir, serving as his deputy.

DAP strategist Liew maintains that the historic alliance between the wily nonagenarian and his once bitterly estranged former protégé Anwar is still a winning formula and the most realistic means ­– short of new elections – of undoing the so-called “Sheraton Move” that brought the PN government to power on March 1 through a raft of defections.

“We want to restore [our mandate] through parliamentary means, we do not want to go into a general election because we think the mandate belongs to us. As long as we bring together Anwar and Mahathir, as long as we can put forward a case that we are the legitimate government, we should claim back the government,” said Liew.

“Once they come together, then the next step is how to really put forward to the voting public a Malaysian national dream. We are trying to project ourselves as a Malaysian government. That is, we have Malay leaders, we have non-Malay leaders and we are trying to stress upon a Malaysian identity,” he continued.

“We are not for any ethnic group. We are for Malaysian national identity without being a threat to anyone. Perikatan Nasional is trying to portray itself as a government exclusively for the Malays, and they are trying to paint us as a government controlled by the non-Malays. That is the basic fault line,” former deputy defense minister Liew remarked. 

Wan Ahmad Fayshal Wan Ahmad Kamal, the PN government’s deputy youth and sports minister, laid out his camp’s perspective in an interview with Asia Times.

A former aide to disputed Bersatu youth chief Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, PH’s then youth and sports minister, Wan Ahmad Fayshal initially signalled support for Mahathir in the midst of late February’s political coup, but then opted to throw his support behind Muhyiddin’s premiership and was appointed as a senator and deputy minister thereafter.

“Pakatan Harapan, as we all know, isn’t going to last. The majority of Malaysians have already lost faith in PH, and they don’t really care about their reform agenda anymore. The opposition is very much divided. They cannot figure out who’s going to be their candidate for prime minister,” he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin unveils his new cabinet members at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“And furthermore, they don’t have the numbers. They keep talking about the people’s mandate, but at the moment, they don’t have a way forward for the nation because they are basically focused on power and position. I can assure you, Tun Dr Mahathir will not give Anwar the premiership.”

Wan Ahmad Fayshal said that ahead of the Sheraton Move on February 23, many in Bersatu had lost faith in the PH alliance and foresaw a dim future for the exclusively ethnic Malay Muslim party should it remain within the coalition. The proffered solution was for Malay parties on both sides of the aisle to join forces in a new ethno-nationalist coalition.

“From an identity-political point of view, having a strong Malay-bumiputra core is very much needed to stabilize the politics in Malaysia, and what was missing in PH,” said Wan Ahmad Fayshal. Bumiputra, or “sons of the soil”, refers to ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples who are constitutionally granted special privileges and status.

PH won power in 2018 with the support of about 95% of Chinese voters and only 25% to 30% of the total Malay vote share, a degree of reliance on non-Malays that was both disconcerting to many within Bersatu and a political liability for the then-ruling coalition, whose opponents cast it as antithetical to Malay Muslim interests.

The rise of PN brought the scandal-plagued United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its ally, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), into government with Bersatu, which was itself founded as a political alternative to UMNO, who Mahathir’s camp has refused to align with due to accusations of kleptocracy and abuse of power by its top leaders.

Critics took Muhyiddin to task for appointing one of the least diverse Cabinets in the multi-ethnic nation’s modern history, with only one minister from the Chinese and Indian communities respectively. Combined, Chinese and Indians represent about 30% of the population. Around 62% of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay.

“During his deputy premiership, Muhyiddin was asked whether he is a Malay first or a Malaysian first. He said he’s a Malay first, and that’s not a slip of the tongue. [It’s] something coming out from him naturally, being a Malay nationalist. I would not be apologetic about that,” said Wan Ahmad Fayshal. “It’s what we identify ourselves as, our group spirit.”

Liew’s DAP – a center-left Chinese- and Indian-majority party – by contrast preaches a racially-inclusive, unifying message. “Moving forward, we will have to face a situation where our opponent will play on racial lines, and will have to play national lines, which is not easy. We need to build upon the idea that we are all Malaysians” he said.

“How you counter a Malay nationalist argument is to put forward a Malaysian national dream in which no one will feel threatened, because our opponent is playing right-wing politics and creating anxiety, creating fear and unhappiness. The PH leadership will have to decide who is our opponent, who is our enemy.

“I am trying to put forward the idea that it is Muhyiddin and [former premier] Najib [Razak] who are the enemy, it’s not between Mahathir and Anwar,” said Liew, who described opposition to corruption as a “the most elementary consensus among the opposition” and a struggle through which fraught racial divisions can be transcended.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak talks to media at Kuala Lumpur’s High Court after a hearing in the 1MDB financial fraud case on October 25, 2018. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Adli Ghazali

Mahathir’s government began prosecuting Najib, who governed Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, and his relatives for money laundering and corruption in connection with the globe-spanning, multi-billion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, as well as other senior UMNO leaders now aligned with Muhyiddin.

State prosecutors’ recent decision to drop money-laundering charges against Riza Aziz, Najib’s film producer stepson, led many to speculate that Muhyiddin’s government could be prepared to facilitate more lenient treatment of the ex-premier than under the PH administration, owing to PN’s alliance with UMNO.

“If the government allows more scandals like 1MDB to develop, that would definitely turn the tide again,” said Wan Ahmad Fayshal. He contends that Bersatu represents a “sober and more progressive version of Malay nationalism” that would in turn deliver clean government and act to check the rampant corruption associated with its coalition partners.

“We are not tainted and sullied with patronage politics that became a huge burden for the previous [Najib] administration. We were born out of a struggle against kleptocracy. In that sense, we claim the moral high ground,” he said.  

The deputy youth and sports minister conceded that the PN government was “not perfect” and pointed to controversies around appointments of politicians to government-linked companies (GLCs) as an example. Though as long as the ruling coalition champions a Malay agenda at its core, he claimed, Malaysians would accept its rule.

“Malay nationalism is something embedded in Malay politics, institutionalized because of our historical experience. The discrepancy or the gap in economy or distribution of wealth between the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities is still there. So as long as this is not being resolved, our struggle will remain an imperative,” he said.

PH coalition leaders say they will continue to seek common ground and are preparing for a possible snap general election. It is unclear whether PH’s past winning formula, assuming camps loyal to Mahathir and Anwar reach a compromise, will see the same electoral success as in 2018 given that some analysts see PN as a potentially formidable electoral force.

As Mahathir, who enjoys the unique distinction of being both Malaysia’s longest- and shortest-serving leader, maneuvers to return to power, some who had supported him harbor lingering suspicions over his role in February’s power grab, while PN-aligned voices attempt to paint an altogether different picture of Mahathir’s commitment to his PH allies.

“The coup de grâce of the Sheraton Move was actually fulfilling [Mahathir’s] wish,” Wan Ahmad Fayshal claimed. “He said many times to all of us that the Malays must be united in the government and not allow other forces to dictate the pathway of division, and he was referring to the DAP,” who the Muhyiddin ally described as a “Chinese chauvinist” party.    

“I hope [Mahathir] plays the role of a statesman, away from party politics. He has done so much for us, so much for the country. As someone who really admires him, I personally view that whatever we have done and achieved so far through Bersatu and Perikatan Nasional, we are fulfilling his wish and objectives to unite the Malays.”