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Malaysia's political manoeuvring after PM Mahathir quits

  • Published at 01:01 pm February 24th, 2020
WEB_Mahathir Mohamad
File photo: Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reacts during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, September 18, 2019 Reuters

The king accepted Mahathir's resignation but appointed him interim prime minister

Malaysia's 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on Monday, plunging the country into political turmoil less than two years after a surprise election victory.

Does this mean the end for Mahathir?

Not necessarily. It is possible that he could return at the head of a new government if it can put together a parliamentary majority. Several groups called on him to do so.

The king accepted Mahathir's resignation but appointed him interim prime minister.

He has outfoxed opponents for decades during two stints as prime minister. The first was from 1981 to 2003 and the second since 2018, when he joined with old rival Anwar Ibrahim to oust the party that had held power for 60 years over accusations of widespread corruption.

What's behind the resignation?

Mahathir did not explain, but the decision follows surprise talks at the weekend between members of his coalition and the opposition on forming a new government.

At the root of the turmoil is Mahathir's promise to hand over to Anwar under the terms of a pre-election pact.

Mahathir had been under pressure from Anwar's supporters to set a clear timetable for ceding power, but he had refused. The argument came to a head last week and helped prompt the weekend talks.

Anwar and people close to Mahathir said he had quit after accusations that he would form some sort of partnership with opposition parties he defeated less than two years ago on an anti-corruption platform.

What could happen next?

The fact that there are so many possible scenarios has deepened the turmoil. To win power, a coalition needs to convince the king it has the support of a minimum of 112 out of the 222 members of parliament. Some possibilities are:

  • Mahathir returns as prime minister with the support of those who remained in his Pakatan Harapan coalition plus some support from elsewhere.
  • Mahathir returns as prime minister with support of a new coalition - potentially including old enemies.
  • Mahathir bows out, paving the way for a race between Anwar and an alliance of Muhyiddin Yassin, from Mahathir's party, and Azmin Ali, who on Monday was sacked from Anwar's party.
  • No side shows it can summon a clear majority and the king agrees to a new election.

What change would a new coalition bring?

It's hard to tell before a coalition is formed.

But the coalition under discussion at the weekend would have had a bigger representation of Malay interests than the previous one.

This could mean renewed focus on the country's decades-old positive discrimination policy for majority Malays, who enjoyed preferential access to everything from public financing to a 30% quota for equity holdings in businesses.

Any coalition would be expected to say that it would fight corruption and address bread and butter issues.