WHEN MAHATHIR MOHAMAD woke up on February 24, he was the Prime Minister of Malaysia. The ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan, controlled 129 of the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament. But the political plot quickly turned everything upside down. In the afternoon, Dr. Mahathir had resigned from both the head of government and the president of his party, Bersatu. In the evening, he was back in power, as the acting Prime Minister.
Dr. Mahathir appears to have resigned because the 26 MPs from Bersatu, as well as 11 renegades from the Keadilan Rakyat Party (PKR), the largest party of Pakatan Harapan, were planning to leave the coalition. In the chaos of the day, some suspected Dr. Mahathir to be behind the plot himself. But the 94-year-old colleagues were quick to acquit him of all involvement. “He played no role in it,” said Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the PKR and Dr. Mahathir’s political enemy. Lim Guan Eng, Minister of Finance and Leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), another coalition party, said that Dr. Mahathir’s resignation was proof of his integrity – in particular, his reluctance to work with the ‘United Malaysian National Organization (UMNO). , the main opposition party, to form an alternative government.
Dr. Mahathir has not always found UMNO so repulsive. Indeed, during his first visit to the post of Prime Minister, between 1981 and 2003, he led the party. Horrified by corruption in a later UMNO administration, however, he formed Bersatu before the May 2018 elections. Allied with the PKR, DAP, and Amanah, an Islamic party, Dr. Mahathir designed the first change of control of the Malaysian parliament . Pakatan Harapan has defeated UMNO, which has been in charge for 61 years, since the independence of Great Britain. It was an amazing surprise.
It will always be difficult to keep the coalition inexperienced. Quarrels were inevitable. Much of this has been linked to racial politics in the country. About 69% of Malaysia’s 32 million people are bumiputra: Malays and other indigenous groups. 24% are of Chinese origin and 7% are Indian. The bumiputra have always supported UMNO because it defends and defends policies to stimulate them economically. Bersatu too. Much of the rest of the population does not like the privileges granted to the Malays. The DAP represents Chinese interests; PKR embraces multiculturalism.
The group of parties in Pakatan Harapan believed that, despite their differences, they could govern effectively together. But tensions increased as Malaysian voters turned away from the government. Shortly after the coalition took power, 63% of Malays believed that the country was “going in the right direction,” according to the Merdeka Center, a pollster. In two years, this share had dropped to 24%. The coalition lost five by-elections to opposition candidates, while UMNO and its allies claimed that Pakatan Harapan ignores Malaysian voters and their needs. These defeats have sown the seeds of unrest within the ruling coalition.
It is still a long way from knowing who will win and lose when the dust settles. But the president of Bersatu, Muhyiddin Yassin, the Minister of Internal Affairs, seems to have miscalculated. He and other party leaders failed to convince Dr. Mahathir to make Bersatu a new government coalition with UMNO. The PKR rebels also seem to be off to a bad start. A Pakatan Harapan politician even expects most of the group members to try to join their old friends. Azmin Ali, their leader and the Minister of Economic Affairs, has in the past appeared to be Dr. Mahathir’s preferred successor. Her future now seems doubtful.
For Mr. Anwar, too, the result may not be rosy. He joined forces with Dr Mahathir on the understanding that he would take up the post of Prime Minister within two years. Dr Mahathir then called it simply a “suggestion” and then said he would not go until the end of the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation summit in November. The pair have had a strained relationship for decades. In 1998, Dr. Mahathir sacked Mr. Anwar, his deputy at the time, and Mr. Anwar was eventually imprisoned for sodomy (which is a crime in Malaysia). However, relations have appeared hot in recent days when the top leaders of Pakatan Harapan, including Mr. Anwar, agreed to let Dr. Mahathir choose a date for his departure. The creation of a new government coalition could delay, if not prevent, Mr. Anwar from taking over.
Dr. Mahathir could emerge victorious from the mess. His appointment to the post of interim Prime Minister, pending the formation of a new government, could calm investors a little. Malaysia’s stock market has plunged to invisible depths since 2011 amid the turmoil and the country’s central bank has said that it “is closely monitoring” conditions in the financial markets.
If Dr. Mahathir wishes to retain his position, he will likely obtain the necessary parliamentary support. He appears to be the only candidate capable of doing so – politicians on both sides of the emerging political divide have publicly supported him to stay – and enthusiasm among legislators for a quick election is low according to politicians. Negotiations will continue over the next few days. Parts of the states of Sabah and Sarawak can tip the scales in one way or another. Whichever coalition emerges, however, it must soon learn to govern without depending on a nonagenarian.