A Political Earthquake, More Aftershocks to Come

A manic Monday in Malaysia means that the country could be ruled by one of two competing coalitions

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (left) after a press conference in Petaling Jaya, June 1, 2018. (Photo: Flickr, Prachatai)

Francis E. Hutchinson

Lee Hwok Aun

25 February 2020

A series of intricate political manoeuvrings in Malaysia has given new depth to the term ‘revolving door government’. If the ultimate goal of such machinations is attained, the country will see a new coalition government in power – albeit with some familiar faces.

For weeks, Kuala Lumpur has been awash with rumours that a Malay unity pact was imminent. The pact was said to be between Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu (PPBM), a break-away faction of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) led by PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) led by Hadi Awang, and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) under Zahid Hamidi.

The tempo accelerated over the weekend. On Saturday, the leaders of UMNO and PAS met Azmin Ali and PPBM heavyweight Muhyiddin Yassin, as well as Sabah-based and hitherto Pakatan Harapan-friendly Parti Warisan Sabah and non-aligned Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). The meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya was matched by meetings at PKR President Anwar Ibrahim’s house on Saturday, amidst heightening concern that the sudden twist of events would wrest PH’s parliamentary majority away.

The febrile state of flux further continued into Sunday, when the six party leaders of the coalescing coalition secured an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (national king) and emerged from that meeting seemingly upbeat that PH’s demise was imminent. However, a highly anticipated 8pm press conference never materialized. It is of note that Dr Mahathir did not attend any of these meetings.

Mahathir still has the full prerogatives of a prime minister, including being able to appoint a cabinet … while uncertainty prevails, this need not imply instability. Once again, Dr Mahathir is in the driver’s seat.

Dr Mahathir’s absence on Sunday has become clearer. On Monday, there was a meeting between Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Wan Azizah and Anwar Ibrahim of PKR, as well as Mat Sabu of Amanah with Mahathir at the latter’s house. Anwar, upon leaving, told reporters that he was satisfied with the meeting. This might have sounded odd, given PH’s increasingly tenuous hold on power. In retrospect, Anwar’s statement is perfectly logical. Citing sources, The Straits Times reported yesterday (Feb24) that at the meeting, Mahathir had disclosed that he had quit as PPBM party chief, in protest against Muhyiddin Yassin’s decision to abandon the PH grouping and work with UMNO in a new coalition. Dr Mahathir had refused to accept plans to ditch DAP and other parties in PH.

The Monday meeting was followed by a series of elaborate moves aimed at dislodging PH from power. PPBM led by Muhyiddin left the coalition, accompanied by Azmin Ali and 10 other members of PKR. This means that PH is now left with 92 seats, or 20 shy of the 112 majority threshold: the Democratic Action Party with 42; PKR’s remaining 39, and Amanah’s 11.

On the other side, the competing coalition is likely to comprise a majority of PPBM’s 26 Members of Parliament, Barisan Nasional’s 42 (comprised of UMNO’s 39, the Malaysian Chinese Association’s 2 and Malaysian Indian Congress’ 1), as well as PAS’ 18 parliamentarians. However, even this total cannot be ascertained, as loyalties and political calculations are shifting quickly. There are rumours that Mahathir, his son and Kedah chief minister Mukhriz, and two or three other MPs have not joined Muhyiddin, but rather might leave PPBM in protest against Muhyiddin’s announced declaration.

At this stage, the role of the Agong will be pivotal, as he will decide on who, in his opinion, commands the confidence of the majority party or coalition in parliament, or whether the country will head to elections. At 1pm yesterday (Monday), Dr Mahathir submitted his resignation letter to the Agong. Anwar Ibrahim met the Agong at 2 pm, the outcome of which is unreported. A more decisive twist followed soon after, when Mahathir met the Agong at 5pm. A few hours later, the Agong appointed Mahathir interim Prime Minister of Malaysia.

There are a number of unanswered questions at this point. It is not clear which of the two blocs commands a majority. It is also not certain whether UMNO will remain cohesive and united, or whether Anwar Ibrahim will be able to coax a number of MPs to side with him.

Throw in other key political players into the mix, and the picture becomes even murkier. They include the East Malaysian-based parties, including Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Sabah’s Warisan. Sarawak is due to hold state elections by mid-2021, making GPS extra cautious about who it backs.

Either way, the incoming coalition will be weak and unwieldly.

Should the Malay-based Perikatan Nasional (or National Alliance) coalition attain a majority, it will comprise a hodgepodge collection of parties who are all rivals for Malay-majority seats, meaning short term stability but long-term rivalry within the grouping.

Such a turn of events will seriously call into question the fundamental nature of politics in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic democracy, as it will have a miniscule number of non-Bumiputera elected representatives. Some non-Malay members of parliament have reportedly been uneasy with this new coalition, likely contributing to the lower than anticipated number of PKR breakaways. Indeed, there are indications within PPBM itself that grassroots members are unhappy with the prospect of allying with UMNO, which for decades was the flagbearer of Bumiputera rights.

If it does emerge, a Perikatan Nasional coalition will also most likely mean an effective pardon for many senior UMNO leaders, including party president Zahid Hamidi and Tengku Adnan, the former Minister of Federal Territories. Both men have elaborate and multi-layered corruption cases against them. That said, it is unlikely that former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his family will be let off – given their roles in Barisan Nasional’s (BN) abysmal 2018 electoral performance.

Conversely, should the surviving Pakatan Harapan rump muster a majority, it will most likely be with the narrowest of margins. The departure of Azmin Ali’s renegade faction has already complicated matters.

Either way, any incoming coalition will need to work hard and fast to cobble together a new cabinet, a process that is likely to prove to be a complicated and difficult balancing act, given the need to accommodate the interests of all the party heads. Furthermore, the country’s federal system will throw up a patchwork of state governments under different administrations as majorities topple and are reconfigured.

One thing, however, is clear: whether it was by default or design, Dr Mahathir’s decision to resign has taken the country into uncharted waters. Mahathir’s unprecedented appointment as interim Prime Minister by the Agong capped off a tumultuous and manic Monday (February 24). In this capacity, Mahathir still has the full prerogatives of a prime minister, including being able to appoint a cabinet, according to Attorney-General Tommy Thomas. Thus, while uncertainty prevails, this need not imply instability. Once again, Dr Mahathir is in the driver’s seat.

Dr Francis E. Hutchinson is a senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysian Studies Programme (MSP) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Dr Lee Hwok Aun is a senior fellow at ISEAS and co-coordinator of the MSP. Both authors were in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, to launch their edited volume, The Defeat of Barisan Nasional: Missed Signs or Late Surge?

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/19

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.