What happened in Malaysian politics over an unsuspecting weekend in February 2020 was, to put it mildly nothing short of a major kerfuffle. A brief but momentous coup saw the collapse of the ruling government and major personnel reshuffles across political parties. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned, only to regain power as interim prime minister within the same day. At 94, he is the world’s oldest leader.
As Malaysia finds itself stuck in political limbo after a series of very confusing events, the rest of us find ourselves with one question: What just happened?
How do you even begin explaining the political shitstorm that has engulfed Malaysia? Here’s a cheat sheet of all you need to know.
How did this all begin?
Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of the political coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), became prime minister after PH won Malaysia’s 2018 general election.
PH is a coalition of four parties: the People’s Justice Party (PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) led by Lim Guan Eng, the National Trust Party (Amanah) led by Mat Sabu, and Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) led by Mahathir Mohamad.
Although Mahathir became the new prime minister, there was an agreement within PH that Anwar would succeed Mahathir before the next general election.
Things started to smell a little fishy when Mahathir was deliberately equivocal about the deadline to transition from his leadership to Anwar’s. Since he took office, he has been delaying the handover, arguing that the government needed more time to resolve Malaysia’s problems, and that a fixed transition date would interfere with the administration’s long-term plans.
Meanwhile, tensions were brewing within PH. Most notably, Azmin Ali, the Economic Affairs Minister and Deputy President of PKR was a very public supporter of Mahathir who did not disguise his wish for Mahathir to serve full term as prime minister, rather than allow Anwar to assume the post.
Is this Mahathir-Anwar feud new?
Mahathir and Anwar have a twisted relationship which goes back to the 1990s when Mahathir was prime minister and both were members of UMNO. During that time, Anwar was deputy prime minister who seemed right on track to succeed Mahathir. However, Mahathir’s management of the Asian financial crisis sparked conflict between him and his protégé, eventually causing Anwar to be fired in 1998. Anwar then went on to found the PKR.
In 1999, Anwar was sentenced to jail for corruption and sodomy. After his release in 2004, he faced fresh sodomy charges and was jailed again in 2015 during the term of former prime minister Najib Razak (another Mahathir protégé). The charges faced by Anwar reeked of political motive, and it was widely believed that Mahathir wanted to defame him as opposition leader. It was, in Anwar’s words, “politics at its worst.”
Here comes an unexpected turn in the Mahathir-Anwar feud. In 2016, Mahathir quit UMNO and turned against Najib due to the latter’s involvement in the 1MDB fund corruption scandal. Mahathir then founded Bersatu and cooperated with Anwar’s PKR to form the PH coalition.
With renewed mutual trust, Mahathir promised to clear Anwar’s name and offered him the Prime Minister position if PH won the election. True to his word, within a week of PH’s victory in May 2018, Anwar was pardoned and released.
How did the coup happen?
On the night of Saturday, February 22, the PH Presidential Council held a meeting for Mahathir to decide when he would step down as prime minister.
Azmin’s thinly veiled reluctance to let Anwar succeed Mahathir as prime minister led to a coup attempt. On Sunday evening, February 23, Azmin and some Bersatu members reportedly met with opposition party members from UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to discuss the formation of a new government.
The next day, the PH government crumbled.
On Monday afternoon, February 24, Mahathir tendered his resignation as Prime Minister to Malaysia’s Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah. The Sultan accepted Mahathir’s resignation, only to appoint him as interim prime minister later that night.
Throughout the same day, members of the PH coalition began to defect.
Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin declared that the party was leaving PH. This was followed by Mahathir announcing his resignation as party chairman in protest of Muhyiddin’s decision to work with UMNO, his former party.
PKR fired its deputy president, Azmin, and vice president, Zuraida Kamaruddin, as their attendance at the clandestine meeting with opposition MPs was “a display of open betrayal”.
In response, Azmin announced that eleven MPs from PKR would be leaving with him to “form an independent block in Parliament”. According to them, setting a handover date was a “malicious attempt to make [Mahathir] a ‘lame duck PM’” who was incapable of putting effective long-term policies in place.
Why did Mahathir resign?
Well, he didn’t say why he resigned so suddenly, but the assumption is it has something to do with the covert meetings and infighting that have plagued the PH coalition.
With the disintegration of the PH government, 94-year-old Mahathir now has the opportunity to assemble a new team to rule the country. According to the New Straits Times, sources claim that Mahathir was planning to form a new government with 130 MPs from Bersatu, Amanah, PAS, UMNO, and a faction of PKR.
“A major complaint in the last two years is that Mahathir did not have a good team. Now is the time he picks and chooses, since support for him has been coming from across almost all party blocks,” a source told Free Malaysia Today.
This won’t be the first time that Mahathir is turning his back on his political party. In 2016, he left UMNO and founded Bersatu, on the grounds that UMNO was supporting corruption under the leadership of then Prime Minister Najib Razak.
With the resignation of Mahathir, the Cabinet has been dissolved and all ministerial appointments rescinded.
PH has lost their seat majority in the Dewan Rakyat (parliament) and can no longer be the ruling coalition. According to Free Malaysia Today, some party leaders are already planning to join forces to form a majority, but this is all still up in the air for now.
Regardless of which MPs make their way into the new Parliament, some believe that Mahathir is likely to retain his prized position as prime minister. Rather than heading for a snap election with a potentially disgruntled electorate, the parties will likely negotiate among themselves to form a new government, and Mahathir is “the only person who can glue everything together,” an expert on Malaysian politics told CNBC.
On Tuesday morning, February 25, Bersatu rejected Mahathir’s resignation as chairman and reaffirmed its support for Mahathir as prime minister. Bersatu leaders are set to meet Mahathir for discussions, but no details have been released.
Mahathir’s position as interim prime minister will only last as long as ten days, but for now, it appears to be business as usual. He has been calling himself the “interim prime minister” since he was elected anyway.
Things may seem the same, but the activity over this weekend signals major political shifts to come.
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