Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim makes a speech at a press conference after meeting with Malaysian King Yang Di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah, Kuala Lumpur, October 13, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency / Surya Fachrizal Aprianus

SINGAPORE – Amid frenzied speculation and unsubstantiated claims of game-changing political defections, Malaysia may or may not be on the cusp of a change of government.

That is where things stand following opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s closely observed Tuesday (October 13) morning audience with Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the country’s constitutional monarch and ceremonial head of state.

After claiming to command support from a “solid and convincing majority” of lawmakers in Parliament at a September 23 press briefing without furnishing evidence or naming those allegedly supporting his power grab, the monarchal meeting was Anwar’s opportunity to substantiate his leadership challenge and seek royal assent to form a new government.

Though there were more questions raised than answers supplied as the day’s events unfolded, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president declined to furnish new details about his bid to take over Putrajaya, as he had pledged he would after meeting the king. He also appeared to contradict earlier claims of having “close to” a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

Addressing reporters at the Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where Anwar had three weeks earlier sensationally declared that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government had fallen, he claimed to have the backing of more than 120 lawmakers in the 222-member Parliament, sufficient numbers – if substantiated – to form a government.

If he succeeds, the 73-year-old would at long last realize a decades-old aspiration to lead the Muslim-majority nation and take over the premiership from incumbent Muhyiddin, who the monarch, known officially as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, appointed in late February to resolve an earlier political leadership crisis triggered by a parliamentary coup.

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah grants an audience to PKR president Anwar Ibrahim at Istana Negara, October 13, 2020. Photo: Istana Negara.

Should Anwar’s political maneuvering fail to topple the government, analysts say his credibility will be badly tarnished, perhaps to the point that his allies in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition bloc opt to throw their numbers behind a different prime ministerial candidate when the country’s next general election is held.

Anwar’s meeting with the king took place hours before a new partial Covid-19 lockdown, or conditional movement control order (CMCO), was set to be reintroduced across the Klang Valley and in the state of Sabah at midnight on Wednesday (September 14) in response to a sharp rise in cases in recent weeks.

Malaysia’s opposition leader had sought an audience with the Agong since an earlier appointment scheduled for September 22 had been postponed due to the king’s ill health. The monarch was discharged from a hospital on October 2 following treatment for, according to the palace, food poisoning and sporting injuries.

Anwar arrived at Istana Negara, the national palace, on Tuesday morning for his royal audience at around 10:25 am and departed without speaking to the media after spending almost an hour inside. At a subsequent afternoon press conference, Anwar said he submitted documents to the king that proved his parliamentary support.

“I urge all parties to give space to the king to carry out his responsibilities under the constitution, and to go through the documents and call party leaders to confirm and receive their input and views,” Anwar said. The palace issued a statement soon after saying Anwar did not, in fact, disclose to the king the identities of lawmakers supporting his bid.

“Anwar has submitted the alleged number of members of the House of Representatives who support him. However, he did not submit a list of names of members of the House of Representatives to strengthen the allegation,” said the statement, which noted that the monarch had advised Anwar to abide by and respect legal constitutional processes.

“The palace’s statement about a name list not being provided does undermine Anwar’s claim to some extent,” said Piya Raj Sukhani, a political analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The key focus is now on UMNO’s position and what will be affirmed to the king when party leaders are summoned.”

Observers speculate that Anwar is bidding to draw support from a faction of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) known to be disgruntled with Muhyiddin’s leadership, namely those loyal to UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and criminally convicted former prime minister Najib Razak.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask during the opening ceremony of the third term of the 14th parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur, May 18, 2020. Photo: Nazri Rapaai / Malaysia’s Department of Information / AFP

Zahid had said in a September 23 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, lending certain credence to Anwar’s claim that Muhyiddin’s government had lost its razor-thin governing majority of 113 seats.

Najib’s guilty verdict on massive corruption charges in late July sent shockwaves through UMNO, which supports Muhyiddin’s informal Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition but is not a partner to it. At least seven of UMNO’s 39 parliamentarians are in legal trouble, including Zahid, who faces 87 criminal charges for various counts of corruption.

Analysts sense that Anwar is attempting to capitalize on discord increasingly on display between UMNO and Muhyiddin, with some speculating that individual UMNO lawmakers would throw their weight behind Anwar’s power grab with the expectation of receiving more lenient treatment with their pending criminal charges.

Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Anwar dismissed speculation that he would compromise with individuals currently facing criminal convictions to secure a parliamentary majority, but qualified the remark by asserting that he would not pursue a “political vendetta” against anyone if he formed a new “inclusive government.”

“I assured them there would be no political vendetta but they must accept the due process, rule of law, independent judiciary and not malicious prosecution as alleged,” he said. “I have made it abundantly clear we are committed to reform, institutional reform, judicial independence and rule of law.”

At two press conferences on his leadership challenge, Anwar has repeated that the majority of lawmakers backing him were “Malay and Muslim”, and committed himself to uphold the constitutionally-ascribed privileges and special position of ethnic Malays and bumiputra, or “sons of the soil.” 

Spoken by a long-time proponent of reforming Malaysia’s race-based affirmative action policies, many interpreted Anwar’s remarks as an endorsement of the ethnic majoritarianism that the political opposition and Anwar’s ethnic minority-led PH ally, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), in particular, have long sought to rebalance.

Many are still skeptical of Anwar’s claims given that no major party has offered a clear declaration of support while several UMNO members have publicly denied doing so. But the prospect of PH embracing graft-tainted individuals and forming a government through crossovers has raised ethical concerns in some quarters.

A senior PKR source who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity said partnering with UMNO members from Zahid and Najib’s faction would not inhibit reforms and that such an alliance would allow Anwar to prove his reformist mettle after years of setbacks that have denied him the premiership.

Malaysia’s then-prime minister Najib Razak (R) with then-deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L) in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Agencies

“There’s going to be major reforms. I think that there is an overall consensus that this country needs reforms in terms of resources to members of Parliament, in terms of parliamentary independence, not trying to control the Cabinet. All the things that we were supposed to do in the PH government still need to be done,” said the source.

“Malaysia has missed that opportunity to reform. [Former prime minister] Mahathir [Mohamad] came in and did nothing. Now we have a backdoor government, which is definitely not going to do anything. If we have a short-term two-year government for Anwar, then Anwar, as a statesman, should be thinking about reforming.”

According to the source, Najib and Zahid would not personally be among those who crossover if Anwar’s maneuver is successful, though individual lawmakers who belong to their faction are thought to be among those now backing the opposition leader: “It will be those with no outstanding criminal cases that will be supporting.”

The PKR source said that if a “unity government based on MP support” was formed, lawmakers from UMNO and BN, based on their prior experience as the opposition, would support reforms to curtail abuses of power, improve parliamentary procedures and refashion the country’s political ethos “from a zero-sum game to a proper democracy.”

“That’s going to be the main agenda, to reset those core values and core democratic principles: an independent Parliament, checks and balance of the Cabinet’s powers, the prime minister’s powers. Then we can go for election two years down the line. Because if we don’t reform, UMNO will probably get back to power in the next election.”

Some analysts and observers believe the genuine motivation behind the UMNO faction’s cooperation with PKR is not to enable Anwar to take the premiership, but rather to coax Muhyiddin into calling a snap election, where BN would contest against PN in ethnic Malay constituencies and attempt to form the next government independently.  

The Election Commission, an agency under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department, recently cautioned against holding a state or general election in the near future given the resurgence of Covid-19 in the country. If Anwar were to rise to power, an easing of the pandemic could bring about new political contestation, the PKR source conceded.

“If [Anwar] does this move and gets very lucky, he becomes prime minister maybe for six months, maybe for two years. That depends on his skill as a politician. If UMNO is there purely to push him (Muhyiddin) out, then six months later, once Covid is done, they will make a move and then we have an early election,” said the source.

“In the interim period, they will support Anwar. It doesn’t mean that they will not make a move six months down the line. They (Muhyiddin, UMNO) have conflicting interests. That’s why we’ve come together. It’s not an ideological thing. It’s a pragmatic thing. An election is not too bad for PKR. That would be better than today. Today is the rock bottom.”

Anwar Ibrahim (L) with Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali (R) at the 20-year Party Keadilan Rakyat celebration. Photo: Malay Mail via AFP / Hari Anggara.

The collapse of the PH government in February, enabled by former PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali’s and ten other lawmakers’ defections to Muhyiddin’s camp, brought PKR to its lowest point, said the party source. Routinely described as “traitors” by PKR supporters, Anwar has said Azmin-linked defectors are not among those backing his takeover bid.

But in seeking a reversal of political fortunes, analysts say Anwar runs the risk of walking into the same dependency trap vis-à-vis UMNO that Muhyiddin is stuck. Moreover, it isn’t immediately clear how such an ideologically disparate grouping will result in more effective government, as it is more likely to be seen as an alliance of desperados.

Several political party leaders have been summoned for an audience with the Agong at the Istana Negara, where they are expected to face questions about whether their lawmakers have pledged to support Anwar. The king could theoretically call for the political impasse to be decided through a vote of confidence in Parliament.

But with Anwar continuing to play his cards close to his chest after the palace effectively snubbed his claims of majority support, the onus is on him to prove that he’s holding aces. Without naming names, he doubled down on claims that Muhyiddin’s government has lost its majority on Tuesday, saying “it would be appropriate for him to resign.”

“Public anger has been increasing against politicians who are tenacious on changing the government, given that they are disregarding the reality of how their political agenda is jeopardizing people’s lives, especially with the rise of Covid-19 cases,” said Sukhani.

“This public outrage may influence a potential reduction in the number of MPs supporting Anwar and compel them to shift their stance. Assuming this occurs, Anwar would then not have the requisite numbers for his countercoup,” she told Asia Times.

“The road of Anwar’s ascendancy still remains long-winded and uncertain. His path to power is contingent on several fluid steps and may subject the character of reform politics to become vulnerable and gradually morph into the politics of appeasement instead.”