Malaysian Premier Stages Daring Move to Stay in Power

Mahathir engineers coup to block onetime protégé Anwar

By: John Berthelsen and Murray Hunter

In an astonishing move, the 94-year-old prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, has in effect staged an attempted coup against his own democratically elected government, taking in corrupt, Malay supremacist parties that the voters rejected in 2018 and abandoning former allies in an audacious bid to stay in power.

The situation remained fluid late Sunday night, with reports that the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or king, was counseling caution. Anwar was said to be seeking a meeting with the king. Despite public outrage, it was unsure if the electorate, exhausted by years of political chicanery, would take to the streets. Late Sunday night, there were no protesters.

The political chaos could well trigger an early election, analysts said, with Mahathir having abandoned his pre-election promise to step down from power after two years.

If the new alignment holds together, it would end any hope of multiculturalism, excluding as it does the ethnically dominant Chinese Democratic Action Party and replacing it with a lineup of ethnic Malay parties committed to so-called ketuanan Melayu or Malay Muslim supremacy  – led by Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Melayu, which has grown from a handful of members to dominance in the now-shattered Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition.

Besides Mahathir’s party, the others in the rejiggered ruling coalition would include the discredited United Malays National Organization, which rode unprecedented scandal into the first defeat of the then-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition after 70 years in power. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which evolved from a rural fundamentalist Islamic party into a rent-seeking UMNO crony party, is another in the new coalition, along with the wing of Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat that is controlled by Mohamed Azmin Ali, a Mahathir ally. Other splinter parties also joined the coalition.

Anwar, after prayers in the northern city of Penang, described himself as “surprised with developments which to us is a betrayal because it’s been promised and so on. So that’s led to changes and I expect maybe that will happen soon, maybe tomorrow.”

If the scenario proves out, that leaves the multicultural reform coalition that rode to power in 2018 fragmented, shocked and powerless at the hands of Mahathir, a master politician who even at his advanced age has no intention of giving up control. The situation remains fluid, observers said, with reports having come to a standstill. One longtime political analyst with deep contacts to both factions nonetheless described it as a coup by Mahathir. “It’s all over,” he said.

Despite periodic expressions of public amity, longtime opposition leader Anwar, the head of the urban, multicultural Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Mahathir remain 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.

As one influential blogger put it: “This appears to be Dr. Mahathir's nuclear option. ‘I will blow everything up and team up with UMNO, PAS, Warisan, GPS and BN,' he wrote.

The new alignment once again sidelines Anwar, the galvanic speaker and onetime finance minister who led the opposition to victory in the 2018 general election after years of political persecution and prison time under trumped-up charges of sexual perversion, only to once again be thwarted by Mahathir, the nemesis who engineered his imprisonment and downfall from finance minister to jailbird in 1998.

Late Sunday night, Azmin was said to still be calling members of Anwar’s faction of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, ostensibly the lead party in the crumbling coalition, urging them to defect to his side.

At the root of Mahathir’s gambit was a devil’s bargain on the opposition’s part, in which Mahathir agreed to return to power after relinquishing the premiership in 2000 to lead the opposition against the massively corrupt former Prime Minister Najib Razak, he of the stewardship of the disastrous 1 Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund, which collapsed in a welter of accusations of corruption and losses of US$4.6 billion to corruption, theft and mismanagement.

Mahathir promised to step down after two years in power, presumably to allow Anwar, the tarnished prince in waiting through two prison terms for unnatural sexual practices and a long list of other indignities.

Despite the two year promise to step down, the nonagenarian Mahathir began to display a stubborn streak, abandoning almost immediately the multicultural reformist formula that had brought the Pakatan Harapan coalition to power and returning to the ketuanan Melayu – Malay Muslims first – that had characterized his previous 23 years in power which ended in 2000. In recent weeks, as Anwar’s followers have raised their demands that Mahathir honor his promise and step down, the prime minister has stubbornly refused to deliver a timeline,

However, even as the prime minister has displayed stubbornness over the decision, it is said to have caught Anwar on the back foot.

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.