Malaysia's People's Justice Party president Anwar Ibrahim in a file photo. Photo by Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto)

SINGAPORE – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed to have secured the parliamentary majority needed to form a new federal government in a surprise announcement on Wednesday afternoon (September 23), signaling that another change of government could soon be afoot in the Southeast Asian nation.

“With a solid and convincing majority, it means that as of this moment, the government of [Prime Minister] Muhyiddin Yassin has fallen,” said the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president during a surprise press conference at the Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. He refused to reveal the exact number of lawmakers supporting him.

The bombshell declaration has been met with skepticism from analysts and observers and is the latest twist in what has been the most politically turbulent year in Malaysia’s recent history, which saw the collapse of the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration helmed by Mahathir Mohamad less than seven months ago.

The political implications of Anwar’s hastily convened press conference – in which he stated he had been approached to take over the government by “a number of MPs from various parties who expressed deep dissatisfaction with the current leadership” – continue to be unclear given that he not yet provided proof of having the majority support of lawmakers.

At present, PKR and its PH alliance partners, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), have 91 seats in Parliament, short of the 112 needed for a simple majority. Parti Warisan Sabah and the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO), parties allied with the Anwar-led PH, have 10 seats.

Muhyiddin’s loose Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance has assembled a fragile majority of 113 in the 222-member parliament, the slimmest governing majority in Malaysia’s history. Sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on March 1 in the aftermath of a tussle for political power, Muhyiddin, 73, could soon become the country’s short-serving premier.

Anwar, 73, said he will hold an audience with Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, after which he would disclose his next moves. The veteran politician said he was supposed to have an audience with Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah yesterday (September 22), which was postponed due to the Agong’s ill health.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (L) receiving documents from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (R) before taking the oath as the country’s new leader at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Maszuandi Adnan / Malaysia’s Department of Information / AFP)

“The Agong should be the first person to be informed of the details but suffice to say, it’s not a small majority,” said Anwar, who claimed to have “close to” a two-thirds majority and support from PN lawmakers. When asked by reporters whether Parliament would be dissolved, the 73-year-old said that this is the prerogative of the Agong.

The sultan was reportedly admitted to the National Heart Institute (IJN), a heart surgery center in Kuala Lumpur, yesterday after he complained of feeling unwell. Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, Comptroller of the Royal Household, said the monarch’s condition was not worrying and that he is soon expected to be discharged.

The Agong remains hospitalized at the time of publication. Anwar, speaking to reporters, said his “new government” would not seek snap elections and that a general election would only be held when the time is right. He reportedly claimed a new government was needed to shore up the economy given that the current PN administration is too unstable.

Anwar also said he is willing to consider “a suitable role” for Muhyiddin if he cooperates with a “peaceful and orderly” transition of power. The PKR president claimed that his new government “has got a mandate and clear policies and those who decide to join have to accept the issue of integrity, good governance, anti-corruption, rule of law.”

“I’m not sure if I’m watching the greatest comeback in Malaysian history or the biggest bollocks in Malaysian history,” said James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “Muhyiddin can advise the king to call a snap election, that is his right as prime minister.”

Analysts say the significance of events now unfolding depend wholly on Anwar proving his assertion. Wednesday’s events conjured memories of a similar episode in 2008 where the PKR president also claimed that he had a majority, only for the move to fall flat with members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) failing to defect into his camp.

“People will think he is crying wolf until he clearly and unequivocally shows the list of members supporting his majority. But it is certainly possible. Simply, we don’t know,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“Muhyiddin is still the sitting prime minister, so he could advise the king to dissolve parliament. The king could either appoint Anwar if he’s convinced he has the majority or is likely to command a majority, as the king did with Muhyiddin half a year ago.”

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

Shortly after Anwar’s midday press conference, Muhyiddin addressed the nation in a pre-scheduled live television broadcast to announce a new stimulus package for those affected by Covid-19, seemingly unflustered by the opposition leader’s claims of having secured a political coup that would supposedly end his premiership.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to reject the haphazard actions of some politicians who deliberately want to affect political stability and the country’s economic recovery plan which is being implemented smoothly at the moment,” said the premier in an apparent reference to Anwar’s bid to take over Putrajaya.

Prior to Muhyiddin’s speech, more immediate reaction to Anwar’s claims from PN officials surfaced on Twitter.

Mohamed Azmin Ali, a former PKR deputy president and one-time Anwar ally regarded as a key engineer behind the parliamentary coup that collapsed the PH government tersely tweeted at Anwar: “Incorrigible liar and political psychopath.”

It’s still not clear from where Anwar’s claimed majority will come. Speculation had previously been rife that Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which controls 18 seats and is aligned with Muhyiddin’s PN coalition, had shifted allegiances in favor of Anwar due to friction with its allies in the federal administration.

James Masing, Sarawak’s deputy chief minister, reportedly denied rumors that GPS planned to support Anwar instead of incumbent Muhyiddin. Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has also reportedly confirmed that none of its 18 lawmakers are backing Anwar’s bid. The same cannot be said, however, of UMNO lawmakers.

UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly conceded in a statement that “many” lawmakers from his party and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition he leads have voiced support for Anwar’s bid to form a new government, without specifying an exact figure. “UMNO and BN cannot stop MPs who have chosen to support Anwar,” he said.

Anwar Ibrahim points during a press conference at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, September 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

PH chief secretary Saifuddin Nasution Ismail pointed to Zahid’s statement as proof that Muhyiddin had indeed lost his majority in Parliament. Amanah, one of Anwar’s PH allies, has declared its full support for Anwar’s bid to form a new government, while the DAP was more cautious, saying it would do so if the requisite support had indeed been obtained.  

“I don’t see where the numbers are coming from. I have doubts. I’m not sure the numbers are there,” said a PH source who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity. When asked if Anwar’s coalition partners had been briefed ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, the source said: “We were informed to a certain extent, but not necessarily the full details.”

Amanah and the DAP had previously voiced support for Warisan president Shafie Apdal as PH’s alternative candidate to be prime minister following an initial endorsement for him from former premier Mahathir, 95, who had earlier pledged to hand power to Anwar, his once-estranged former deputy, throughout his 2018-20 tenure.

Mahathir had long been suspected of having reservations about an Anwar premiership and ultimately resigned in February after serving 22 months in power. Open friction between the two veteran politicians emerged in the months following PH’s collapse, though the two have not expressly ruled out cooperating politically.

Mahathir himself did not appear convinced that his former deputy had secured a majority when responding to questions from reporters. When asked during Wednesday’s press conference whether Mahathir’s new party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (PPTA), or Pejuang, had offered support for his takeover bid, Anwar said: “He may decide later, but as of now, no.”

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a Zoom call interview with Asia Times, June 25, 2020. Photo: Office of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

Anwar’s declaration comes four days before voters in Malaysia’s easternmost state of Sabah hold state elections, pitting the Shafie-led Warisan Plus coalition, consisting of Warisan, DAP, PKR, Amanah and UPKO, against Muhyiddin’s Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), an informal opposition alliance between PN, BN, and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).

Analysts are divided over how Wednesday’s developments could impact the polls, with some seeing a federal government takeover as a huge boost for the Warisan Plus election campaign, while others say the move could disenchant Sabah’s 1.12 million voters, particularly if the maneuver falters and confusion persists.

“The Sabah election is serving as a catalyst for this situation. It’s a big gamble, and if it doesn’t deliver, [Anwar’s] credibility will be badly affected,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute. “Many voters feel that these are just peninsular leaders politicking.

“Malaysians want to focus on the things that matter right now – the economy, Covid-19 – these are the things that are really crucial to them. Politicking doesn’t go over very well with some parts of the population and really does create problems and challenges for policymaking and for addressing the problems that people want to face,” she added.

If Anwar can provide proof that he has a majority of lawmakers behind him, he could become Malaysia’s ninth prime minister, realizing a long-held ambition to lead the Muslim-majority nation after a tumultuous multi-decade political struggle laden with dramatic ups-and-downs, including being sentenced to jail for sodomy and corruption.

Spending nearly 10 years behind bars on charges that he and his supporters have described as baseless and politically motivated, he was granted a full royal pardon in 2018 as part of the deal with Mahathir for him to succeed the premiership, bringing an ostensible end to a tumultuous legal saga and paving the way for his return to frontline politics.

But by finally achieving his prime ministerial aspirations through a negotiated majority shored up by UMNO defectors, a veritable countercoup that would reverse the so-called “Sheraton Move” – the takeover bid which brought Muhyiddin’s unelected government to power – Anwar could also face questions of democratic legitimacy.

Protesters against the political maneuvers that catapulted Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to power. Image: Twitter

Accordingly, the 73-year-old insists that his proposed new government would not be a “backdoor” government, the derogatory label PH leaders have used to describe the PN administration, which came to power through political crossovers and support from UMNO, which was defeated in the 2018 election.  

Former PH and PKR politicians who abandoned the then-ruling PH coalition in February are not among those currently backing his push to form a new coalition government, said Anwar when asked by reporters if he would accept “traitors” into the fold should he receive assent from the Agong to become the next premier.

“They can call it backdoor or not backdoor. The fact of the matter is that it’s not directly tied to an election, it’s tied to elite negotiation. You have to call a spade a spade,” said academic Welsh. “One has to be careful to not see this as the democratic process winning out. It’s a process of elite politicking.”