All eyes on Mahathir as he again picks new Malaysia leader

By: News Desk      Published: 11:14 AM, 25 Feb, 2020
All eyes on Mahathir as he again picks new Malaysia leader

After a wild day that saw the collapse of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, one thing is clear: Mahathir Mohamad is placed to be the kingmaker.

Mahathir, 94, abruptly resigned as prime minister on Monday after a longstanding rift within his alliance over who would succeed him boiled over. By the end of the day, he was the only one left in charge after the king appointed him interim prime minister and dismissed the cabinet. And most parties in his ruling coalition pledged to continue supporting him as leader.

“Whether or not it was strategic or planned is a matter of debate,” Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at John Cabot University in Italy who writes frequently about Malaysian politics, told Bloomberg Television. “But ultimately what has happened is he’s put himself in a much stronger position in terms of being able to choose who he wants to be in government and the process ahead.”

While the outcome of the power struggle is unclear, the events mark another twist in the decades-long rivalry between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim. The distrust between them dates back to the 1990s, when Anwar was ousted from Mahathir’s cabinet and arrested for sodomy.

The re-emergence of political instability threatens the economy at a time when the global coronavirus epidemic and trade wars are hurting growth. Malaysian assets rebounded Tuesday after getting pummeled a day earlier, with the ringgit climbing 0.1% after tumbling to the lowest in almost six months and the benchmark stock index advancing after entering a bear market.

Mahathir and Anwar joined hands ahead of elections in 2018 for a stunning victory that ousted the previous coalition, which had ruled Malaysia for six decades. But Mahathir soon backtracked on a promise to hand over power shortly after the vote, and he has been similarly vague about giving Anwar the premiership after two years -- an anniversary coming up in May.

The lack of clarity increased tensions in Anwar’s party, and his deputy - Azmin Ali - emerged as a potential rival to succeed Mahathir. Azmin officially left Anwar’s party in the Monday shakeup, and remains a potential leadership option.

Now, it’s just Mahathir running things. Social media users shared memes of a cabinet lineup with Mahathir’s picture in every post. On Tuesday, Mahathir shared photos of him sitting at his office in his usual grey suit, looking through documents. The caption read: “Just another day in the office.”

There are several key events on Tuesday. An official from the palace is scheduled to brief reporters in the afternoon, which may provide details on the process for picking a new government. And Pakatan Harapan, the former ruling coalition, plans to meet this evening. It’s unclear if Mahathir or his party will attend.

The numbers will be crucial going forward. There are 222 seats in Malaysia’s fragmented parliament, held by 19 parties. The ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition had about 130 seats until Monday, when dozens of lawmakers left the group, at least temporarily.

Given the statements of support, Mahathir has elicited from multiple parties, he could still form a fresh alliance that includes parties from both sides of the line, dropping those he doesn’t need from the current ruling coalition.

That could mean the previous coalition essentially reforms without those who defected. If that happens, presumably that would again position Anwar to take over from Mahathir later this year, if an agreement reached earlier this month holds.

Mahathir could also join hands with Azmin and the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO - the party he once led and defected from - to form a new government. Anwar insisted on Monday that Mahathir assured him this would never happen.

It’s also possible for the Barisan Nasional opposition, which led Malaysia for six decades until the 2018 election, to seize control. But it would have to convince almost all the lawmakers who left Pakatan to switch sides without bleeding too many of its own seats.

Either way, as has long been the case in Malaysia over the years, all eyes are on Mahathir.