Mahathir remains on top of things in Malaysia: analysts

Ties between Malaysia and China had been strained since new PM Mahathir suspended a series of Chinese-financed projects
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remains in control (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — With a snap election seemingly on the horizon in Malaysia, analysts say the political situation in the country remains highly fluid, and may fracture even further before a grand coalition can emerge.

Nevertheless, it also presents an opportunity for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 94, and his designated successor, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) chief Anwar Ibrahim, 72, two men who have dominated Malaysian politics since the 1990s.

“This is a unique opportunity to clean house by forcing PKR party members to choose sides,” said Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), noting that the party has been split by in-fighting and “manufactured” scandals in recent months.

“I suppose Mahathir wants to save what he sees as the good part of UMNO - the part that is still loyal to him - from Najib, who still has support even though he is on trial. It may also be a reminder to Anwar that he should not expect to become PM so soon, because you still need the grand master to be there, to do the impossible things.”

On the public’s reaction to the shocking turn of events, Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, called it “a mix of disbelief and apathy”.

“This is business as usual in Malaysian politics, being volatile and disruptive.”

Political turmoil in Malaysia

Malaysia's leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim and the 'Pact of Hope' coalition unexpectedly swept to power in 2018
Has Malaysia's leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim missed his chance to become PM again? (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

It has been a whirlwind two days for Malaysians in the wake of what amounted to an attempted coup led by Azmin Ali, former deputy chief of PKR, a key part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Azmin led 11 PKR Members of Parliament in an attempt to form a new ruling coalition with opposition parties, including the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

It was initially thought that Mahathir had engineered the plot, amid pressure from Anwar’s supporters for him to name a specific date to hand over power. But the former resigned not only as PM, but as head of his party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), in order to thwart the attempted coup.

He was then appointed as interim PM by Malaysia’s King, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, while the next government is being formed. Bersatu has also withdrawn its 26 MPs from the PH alliance, making it a minority government.

Despite initially being seen as the "master schemer" who wanted to avoid handing power over to Anwar as agreed, RSIS senior fellow Yang Razali Kassim noted, “With this turn of events, Mahathir has come out of this virtually smelling like a rose.”

Dr Mustafa concurred that Mahathir's leadership position has not weakened, but rather strengthened amid the “frenzied political rough and tumble”.

“Mahathir's resignation had the opposite effect of making him the most apt statesman to bring sanity to a political circus.”

Snap election? Not so fast

Reports from across the border say that various parties and individuals have been meeting with the Agong since Monday (24 February), in a bid to form a new coalition. They include Mahathir, PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim and deposed PM Najib Razak, who remains a key figure in UMNO.

The Agong is expected to appoint a PM who can command the confidence of a majority of the Dewan Rakyat, the elected lower house of Parliament. This amounts to at least 112 seats out of 222. The Agong also has discretionary powers to choose who he wants as PM if no party has won a majority vote.

“If no side emerges with a clear majority, and no government can be formed, the King may dissolve parliament to pave the way for a snap election,” noted Yang.

But Mustafa also told Yahoo News Singapore that he does not expect a snap election. “The buck stops with Mahathir and I don't think he favours an election right now, less than two years after forming the government.”

He added, “A snap election, if that is the preference, will likely take place within the next two months before Ramadan. Otherwise, after Ramadan in the latter part of the second quarter of 2020 at the earliest.”

Impact on Singapore?

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, shakes hands with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Lee is in Malaysia for a two-day working visit. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, shakes hands with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Tuesday, 9 April 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Meanwhile, A/P Chong does not expect any “significant impact” on cross-border relations, despite the Republic’s status as the occasional political football in Malaysian politics. “It is in Singapore’s interests to keep quiet about what is happening in Kuala Lumpur or Putrajaya. Whatever the outcome, we should maintain a constructive relationship.”

He added, “And I suspect Mahathir will remain on top, when all this is over.”

Dr Mustafa noted, “As Singapore is a leading investor and key trading partner of Malaysia, it wants Malaysia to be politically stable as that bodes well for business and investor confidence.”

Asked who he sees as the winners and losers of the current turmoil, Yang Razali Kassim said of the various players, “If there is one clear outcome, it is that everyone loses, the whole country loses.”

He added, “Whoever gets the PM's post may see it as a coveted prize. But is there much good if this comes at the expense of the people's trust in politicians and the political system?

Related stories

Malaysia's Mahathir proposes to lead 'unity government' - sources

In unprecedented move, Agong to interview each MP to determine who commands majority

Dr M clocks in as interim PM, even as Cabinet stays empty (VIDEO)

Agong removes Pakatan ministers after Dr M’s resignation as PM

Agong treats media to burgers and fries, stays for a chat

Azmin, followers claim trying to save Dr M from becoming ‘lame duck’ PM