Malaysian Politics in Deeper Chaos as PM Mahathir Resigns, then retakes reins

In wake of failed coup, now-leaderless country disgusted with politics.

By: John Berthelsen and Murray Hunter

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who failed in his audacious gamble to realign his country’s politics along racial lines, has been appointed by Malaysia’s king to form a new government at the insistence of political parties he had just double-crossed.

Earlier the 94-year-old Mahathir sent a letter to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or king, today (February 24), saying he was resigning as prime minister, throwing the country’s political landscape into even more confusion and generating widespread public outrage. The public image of politicians after the last 24 hours is so tainted that many people on social media want the opportunity to vent their anger at what they are calling traitors and frogs. 

The details are so fluid that reliable reports are not available. The well-respected news website Malaysiakini has been maintaining a running account of events that can be found here. The situation has devolved into a welter of different scenarios with the participants in the attempt to overthrow the Pakatan Harapan government attempting to put the blame on Mohamad Azmin Ali, the economic affairs minister and a Mahathir favorite.

Mahathir, who apparently has sought to cast the coup attempt as fomented by other actors, met with the king on Monday afternoon in a bid to form a caretaker government with a fresh election appearing to be the most likely course although one is not due until 2023. The defections from the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition engineered by Mahathir and his allies mean the coalition now numbers only 97 members of parliament, 25 fewer than the number required to be able to govern.

One source said Mahathir was unable to put together the numbers to form the coalition he envisioned, with moderate Malays and members from Sabah and Sarawak refusing to go along with a grouping that included the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and others finding it a bridge too far to join the deeply corrupt United Malays National Organization, which during its 70 years in power participated in several of the biggest scandals in the country’s history. Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of Mahathir's party, was said by sources to be opposed to the plan.

The gamble on Mahathir’s part has generated outrage throughout the country, with one group of prominent citizens calling themselves Concerned Malaysians issuing a press statement saying the Rakyat “will not agree or cooperate with any backdoor government formed out of the selfish self-preservation agenda of certain MPs. If (the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition) has failed, then the Rakyat demand a fresh mandate. The (king) should consider this position and concerns of the Rakyat (people).”

The fallout from Mahathir’s departure has already begun although in a completely bizarre twist Lim Guan Eng, the head of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, was quoted in local media as publicly asking Mahathir to come back.

Some critics are pointing at Mohamad Azmin Ali, the ambitious Minister of Economic Affairs as the force behind the attempted coup, seeking to split Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat and take defectors with him to join Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia Azmin has been sacked from PKR. His future, along with that of 10 of his co-MPs is uncertain now as to whether they will sit in the parliament as an independent block. 

Overall, the events of the past couple of days have generated deep questions on the political future of the country. It appears unlikely that the ruling coalition can possibly be put back together. It is uncertain if the Bersatu party will collapse without Mahathir, the glue that held the whole shaky coalition together. In addition, the collapse of Bersatu allegiance is putting the Kedah, Negri Sembilan and Johor state governments into instability. 

The coalition Mahathir and his allies attempted to put together would have shorn power from all the minority races in the country, particularly the Chinese, who make up about 20 percent of the population, and Indians, who make up another 8 percent, generating potentially an explosive racial situation.

Mahathir and his allies are dedicated to so-called ketuanan Melayu or Malay Muslim supremacy, which has created decades of racial tension in the country. The now-deposed premier’s proposed rejiggered ruling coalition would have included the discredited United Malays National Organization, Parti Islam se-Malaysia a series of splinter parties. 

Despite periodic expressions of public amity, longtime opposition leader Anwar, the head of the urban, multicultural Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Mahathir have remained implacable enemies who have been waging a subterranean struggle ever since the May 2018 vote that brought the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which also included the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party, and several splinters, to power. 

Whatever the events of the next few days, it is clear that the country, once one of the most stable in Southeast Asia, is in for a considerable period of political instability.