How did we get here? The answer to that involves a decades-long rivalry, accusations of backstabbing, a mess of acronyms and Malaysia’s sometimes fraught religious and ethnic divides.
After louder and louder rumblings of internal turmoil, the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition abruptly collapsed Monday amid accusations several high-profile members, led by Mahathir, were negotiating with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to form a new government.
That coalition was led by Mahathir, a one-time UMNO leader and prime minister, who joined the opposition in order to bring down Najib, who he regarded as massively corrupt. Najib is currently on trial over numerous charges relating to the 1MDB scandal, which he denies.
While some members of PH were suspicious of Mahathir’s motivations, his star power and ability to appeal to traditional UMNO supporters undeniably helped in their ultimate victory. He subsequently became prime minister under an agreement that he would eventually hand over power to fellow PH leader Anwar Ibrahim.
It was that transition that appeared to be in doubt this week, yet another wrinkle in the decades-long saga that is Anwar and Mahathir.
Anwar was once the older man’s heir apparent, until he was fired by then-Prime Minister Mahathir in 1998, and charged with corruption and sodomy. He would spend much of the next two decades in and out of prison, as first Mahathir and then Najib brought more prosecutions against him.
In 2018, with more and more revelations about Najib’s alleged crimes emerging and public clamor for his removal growing, Mahathir formed a breakaway party of former UMNO members, Bersatu, and joined the PH coalition.
As Mahathir showed this week, however, his age has not dented in the slightest his political wiliness and ability to play all sides at once.
“The more Anwar Ibrahim pushed for a date of the transition, the more the forces opposed to his leadership worked to consolidate an alternative,” she said.
Following a weekend of frantic closed-door meetings between all sides, Anwar came out in support of Mahathir on Monday, blaming the attempted political coup on a PKR faction led by deputy leader Azmin Ali, who he promptly sacked.
“Those from my party and outside are using his name. He reiterated what he said to me earlier. He had no part in it. He made it very clear in no way would he work with those in the past regime,” Anwar told reporters Monday.
“In objecting to this nefarious attempt to subvert and undermine the people’s mandate given to PH, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had submitted his resignation as Prime Minister,” Lim said in a statement posted online, adding that his Democratic Action Party (DAP) would support Mahathir remaining as premier.
“Last Friday, we saw an attempt by some of PH top leaders forcing the prime minister to set a date to resign and proceed with the transition of power to PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim,” the statement said. “The campaign, which started a few months ago, has gained momentum to divert the people’s attention from efforts to restore the country’s economy and make institutional reforms.”
If a new political realignment does emerge from the chaos of this week, it is likely to be of a very different flavor to the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
In Malaysia, over 60% of the country’s 32 million population belong to the Bumiputera — a group known as “sons of the soil,” which includes ethnic Malays, and natives of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. At 21%, Chinese Malaysians make up the country’s next largest ethnic group, followed by Indian Malaysians at 6%.
The potential members of a new coalition are primarily Bumiputera parties, similar to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition helmed by former UMNO leader and prime minister Najib Razak.
Najib himself oversaw a strongly Malay-first administration and increase in racialized politics, a strategy he has doubled down on in opposition, while he awaits his various trials for corruption. Many observers believe this strategy to be the driving force behind UMNO’s alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a former rival.
The presence of PAS in any potential new coalition, as well as the almost entirely monoethnic makeup of it, will alarm many urban Malaysians and ethnic minorities, and would be a major step back from the post-racial political transformation some were hailing in 2018.
Nor is there any guarantee that such a monoethnic coalition would actually be any more stable than its predecessor.