Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his de facto deputy Azmin Ali were key movers in the 'Sheraton Move' that brought down Mahathir Mohamad's government. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – Malaysia is in the grip of arguably its worst political crisis since independence, with critics and politicians accusing embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of abusing his power to stifle any challenge to his unelected rule.

Parliament has been suspended under a state of emergency on public health grounds, the economy is in deep decline and the nation’s democracy is unmistakably under heavy strain. It all marks a dramatic turn from May 2018, when the nation basked in its first democratic transition of power since achieving independence.

One year since former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad’s shock resignation after that historic electoral upset, many have come to blame the two-time premier for the political coup orchestrated by his then-allies to topple his popularly elected government.

That coup brought Muhyiddin to power after a weeklong political impasse now known as the “Sheraton Move”, a backroom political maneuver that brought the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition’s 22-month reformist rule to an early and highly unexpected end.

Debate still swirls around the seismic shifts and upheaval that ensued last February, particularly over the extent of Mahathir’s knowledge of and role in the knives-out conspiracy, believed to be engineered in large part by Muhyiddin, Mahathir’s then deputy, and Mohamed Azmin Ali, then deputy to his would-be successor Anwar Ibrahim.  

Camps aligned to Mahathir and Anwar, whose hot-and-cold relationship has shaped Malaysian politics for decades, were at the time in a dispute over the timeline for the promised handover from the former to the latter, a rift that ultimately gave rise to an opportunity for coup-makers from opposition parties and within PH to strike.

National media went into a frenzy when defecting lawmakers from Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) publicly gathered at the Sheraton Hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur with opposition politicians for a celebratory dinner on the evening of February 23.  

It marked the start of an audacious gambit that would end with a power grab by the hastily cobbled-together Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, leaving the country’s two most prominent political personalities outfoxed by their number twos in a maneuver that invited comparisons with the popular television show Game of Thrones.

Rumors of a new political alignment had been rife for weeks, with talk of a Malay Muslim unity coalition emerging, bringing Bersatu together with the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), the former long-ruling party, and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). But their declaration of a new governing coalition initially hit an unexpected hurdle.

It is still not altogether clear if Mahathir was party to the Sheraton Move that brought down his own government. Image: AFP

Mahathir was not present at the February 23 gathering and issued no public statements. But it became apparent as the night drew on that the formation of a new “backdoor” governing coalition meant that PH lost its parliamentary majority through defections and had collapsed, which Anwar then described as a “betrayal [of] promises made.”

Without naming Mahathir, his remarks were a clear reference to repeated vows by the then-premier to eventually step aside and hand power to Anwar. Amid the uncertainty and confusion, sources from PH told Asia Times they were convinced that Mahathir had engineered the plot to block Anwar’s ascent to the premiership. 

By the following afternoon, however, Mahathir resigned from office, a move that was completely unanticipated given that only days earlier at a press conference following a February 21 meeting of the PH presidential council, he announced – with Anwar seated by his side – that PH had agreed to allow him to decide his own transition timeline.

After discussions with Mahathir on February 24, Anwar publicly stated that the nonagenarian politician had not approved the bid to form a new governing coalition and was opposed to cooperation with corruption-tainted leaders from UMNO. The PKR president claimed at the time that Mahathir’s name had been “used” by those plotting PH’s downfall.

A campaign to support Mahathir serving a full five-year term was championed by Anwar’s publicly-estranged then-deputy Azmin and involved efforts to collect “statutory declarations” signed by lawmakers as proof of their support for his premiership, which were ultimately intended to legitimize designs for the new political realignment.

A source close to Mahathir gave Asia Times an inside account of how Bersatu leaders pressured the former premier into accepting their bid for a Malay unity government, which he refused to go along with due to his unflinching disapproval of partnering with UMNO, despite being ruffled and upset by rising demands to step aside from Anwar’s camp.

Mahathir’s resignation had then thrown a spanner in the works that opened an unprecedented power vacuum in the Southeast Asian nation, which all sides rushed to fill. Malaysia’s king, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, named Mahathir interim prime minister following his resignation, a position through which he attempted his own powerplay.

The nonagenarian sought to rally support to lead a non-partisan unity government comprised of leaders from both sides of the nation’s political divide, a proposal seen as a bid for “personal rule” that was unanimously rejected, with UMNO and PAS withdrawing support for Mahathir three days after publicly endorsing his continued premiership.

Anwar Ibrahim, head of Malaysia’s main opposition, speaks to press members in Kuala Lumpur, October 16, 2020. Syaiful Redzuan / Anadolu Agency via AFP

PH followed suit, naming Anwar as their prime ministerial candidate in a separate effort to capture lawmaker support for a governing majority. In an unprecedented move, Malaysia’s king opted to interview all 222 elected members of Parliament to determine which potential candidate for the premiership commanded a majority required to form a government.

On March 1, a week after the fateful gathering at the Sheraton Hotel, the same venue where PH leaders announced their surprise general election victory less than two years earlier, Muhyiddin was appointed by the king and sworn-in as Malaysia’s eighth premier. Mahathir publicly contested his nomination, saying it had violated the rule of law.

Acting as Bersatu’s chairman after Mahathir similarly resigned from the role, Muhyiddin withdrew the party he co-founded from PH and formed PN with support from UMNO, which he was previously sacked from during former premier Najib Razak’s tenure, putting him in an awkward alliance with PH’s archrivals who had lost the historic 2018 general election.

Ousted from power, Mahathir and Anwar decried the bitter betrayal of their deputies but were soon publicly sparring and at loggerheads with each other. Muhyiddin’s tenure, meanwhile, has since been characterized by severe intra-coalition infighting that analysts say has undermined his government’s Covid-19 response and overall performance.

“One of the unintended positive consequences of the Sheraton Move is that it ends the myth of Malay unity,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development. “UMNO, Bersatu and PAS are like three brothers after the same love interest. They are anything but united.”

Nor has Muhyiddin’s unelected PN-coalition shaken off popular accusations of it being a “backdoor” government, despite the controversial power transition having occurred through entirely legal and constitutional means. Voters have, meanwhile, attempted to hold one of the political coup’s key architects to account.

Ten voters from Gombak constituency are claiming damages and compensation in a civil suit against Azmin launched last November for his role in toppling the PH government he was elected to serve, which the plaintiffs argue amounts to a breach of his fiduciary duty as an elected representative.

With no other legal avenues to challenge the act of constitutionally-protected party-hopping, the civil suit has been watched closely despite it likely having little chance of being heard. Through his lawyer, Azmin has said he intends to file an application to strike down the suit on grounds it is an abuse of the court process.

Azmin, who was PKR’s former deputy president, is now a Bersatu supreme council member who oversees international trade and industry as one of four senior ministers. Many observers and politicians view him as a de facto deputy prime minister, a role that Muhyiddin has formally left vacant.

Muhyiddin Yassin presides over what critics view as an unelected government. Picture: Agencies

Mahathir has publicly offered to be a witness in the civil suit if his testimony is requested in court. Prior to PH’s collapse, speculation was rife that Azmin was the former premier’s preferred successor.

In an exclusive interview with Asia Times last June, Mahathir called Azmin a “disappointment” but admitted he had previously been “very close” with him.

In August, Azmin penned a cryptic poem he shared in a Facebook post shortly after formally joining Bersatu that suggested he and Muhyiddin “shook hands” and decided to work together to “save” Malaysia, writing that there was no Langkah Sheraton (Sheraton Move), only what he termed as a langkah kanan (the right move).

Though elected state governments had in the past fallen due to lawmaker defections, the Sheraton Move marked the first time it happened at the federal level. The episode has prompted calls for the government to consider enacting anti-party hopping legislation to safeguard political stability, a proposal that has garnered bipartisan support.

A parliamentary caucus on electoral reform was formed last year to discuss ways to address the issue. Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, an UMNO lawmaker appointed to lead the caucus with support from PH, has advocated a party-list system that ties a constituency to the political party that won the seat, rather than the elected representative.

Both the Mahathir and Muhyiddin administrations have taken the view that any laws regulating lawmaker defections would contravene constitutionally-enshrined rights to association. Mahathir’s government notably leaned on the political utility of defections during PH rule and was widely panned for welcoming droves of party-hoppers into Bersatu from UMNO.

As the opposition, PH has likewise attempted to use defections in a bid to restore its mandate. In September, Anwar claimed to have “a solid and convincing majority” to form a new federal government in a maneuver dubbed the “Meridien Move” after the Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where he launched the divisive and ultimately unsuccessful gambit.

One year since PH’s downfall, the opposition remains fractured between pro-Anwar and pro-Mahathir camps. Some within PH’s component parties have in recent months expressed frustration with Anwar’s leadership and advocated for renewed cooperation with Mahathir and his newly formed and unregistered party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang).

On top of the storied history between Mahathir and Anwar, the breakdown of trust that occurred following the Sheraton Move continues to be a stumbling block to reviving the unified opposition formula that garnered previous success at the ballot box, shattering the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional’s (BN) 61-year grip on federal power.

Citing repeated “conspiracies and betrayals” by Mahathir, Anwar insisted he would take his own path in an interview last November. PKR has more recently blamed Mahathir for the country’s ongoing political instability after he resigned without consultation from PH. They have also accused him of trying to scupper the opposition coalition’s return to power.

Mahathir, for his part, has renewed attacks on Anwar, claiming last November that he is incapable of leading the country through an economic crisis and not fit to be prime minister. The 95-year-old had previously proposed serving as prime minister for six months if they can retake the government by joining forces, before handing power to Anwar.

“Whether Mahathir and Anwar can come together again will depend on a wide range of factors, including whether they can reconcile as individuals, whether they can agree on how to share or divide power, and whether they can manage the various parties and powerbrokers” said Amrita Malhi, a research fellow at Australian National University (ANU).

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

“They will have to articulate a compelling vision of how the nation can remake itself in the context of the enormous challenges it currently faces. If they can’t do that, they will have to live with unstable coalitions with no particular ideological orientation – that form, dissolve and re-form in ways that nobody can control.”

Many believe Mahathir was far from oblivious to the conspiracy brewing prior to the Sheraton Move and had never intended to hand power to Anwar. Leaked recordings reported by local media suggest that while Mahathir intended to eventually resign, he did not plan to muster the necessary support for Anwar from his then-party Bersatu.

Bersatu supreme council member Wan Saiful Wan Jan wrote in a lengthy essay published last year by the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore that behind closed doors Mahathir was “was both adamant and consistent that he did not want to see Anwar succeed him as prime minister despite his public statements (to the contrary).”

The former premier’s botched bid to form a non-partisan unity government after his resignation was, moreover, widely seen as directly breaking his vow to hand the premiership to Anwar. Mahathir has maintained that the Sheraton Move was initiated against his wishes and despite his advice and that he had no choice but to resign given that PH had lost its majority.

To be sure, Mahathir could have become Malaysia’s eighth prime minister if he desired merely by accepting the new alignment advocated by his party, which toward the second half of PH’s truncated tenure began to see the multiracial coalition as a liability that would cost it crucial support among the country’s majority ethnic Malay Muslim population.

Malhi said that just as Malaysians were divided over the election of the relatively liberal PH coalition, whose rise chipped away at the hegemonic idea of a nation of races managed by a Malay Muslim government and energized a potent conservative backlash, voters are divided by how they now remember the Sheraton Move.

“How Malaysians understand the Sheraton Move is currently an open question, and the answer will depend on their underlying beliefs about what sort of nation they want to live in, and whether those beliefs can be sustained under the pressure of the pandemic, its social and economic impacts, and the emergency rule they are living under now,” Malhi said.