The tussle between old rivals Mahathir, 94, and Anwar, 72, has shaped Malaysian politics for decades.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The political guessing game continues in Malaysia a day after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad‘s abrupt resignation, prolonging the atmosphere of uncertainty in the nation of more than 30 million people.
While Mahathir stays on as premier in an interim capacity without a cabinet, efforts are under way on Tuesday to find the country’s next leader.
Now there are questions whether the 94-year-old leader will make another comeback, or will his would-be successor, Anwar Ibrahim, cobble enough support from a fractious coalition to become the next prime minister.
But the possibility of a dissolution of the parliament, which paves the way for new elections has also emerged.
Malaysia’s king is holding meetings with all members of parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday to determine who the majority wants to support and form a new government.
“The king will be meeting all 222 MPs to find out who they support as PM. The person who has the support of at least 112 MPs will be the most likely one to be appointed as PM,” a senior member of Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition explained to Al Jazeera.
In the meantime, Mahathir runs the government with the king’s backing and the help of civil servants, Kadir Jasin, Mahathir’s media adviser, said.
On Tuesday, Mahathir’s office confirmed that he met leaders of different parties across Malaysia’s political divide, including Anwar, as well as the opposition.
Reuters news agency is also reporting that he is proposing to lead a “unity government”, but it is unclear which political blocs would be willing to join such an arrangement.
On Tuesday night, UMNO, the main opposition party, has rejected a unity government with Mahathir, adding that its members favour a dissolution of parliament that would pave the way for a general election.
Mahathir’s decision to resign came on Monday, following Sunday’s events in the outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where some politicians from his ruling coalition and members of the opposition tried to forge an alternative group in a bid to deny Anwar the premiership.
In response, other members of the ruling coalition, including Anwar’s party, rallied behind Mahathir to continue as prime minister.
However, Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, bolted from the coalition alongside 11 renegade members of Anwar’s PKR party – the same group accused of instigating the political turmoil.
Asked whether Mahathir will have enough support to stay in power, Kadir, his media adviser, said: “If you look at the number of MPs from different parties who have pledged their support to him, it looks like he has good support. But at the end of the day, it is still left to be seen.”
Anwar’s uncertain future
The confusion has also left Anwar in a precarious position, despite a previous promise by Mahathir that he will turn over the premiership to his coalition partner.
Mohd Faizal Musa, a research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation at the National University of Malaysia, said the current political atmosphere is unfavourable to Anwar.
“A figure with leadership qualities should also be one who has solid, undivided support from his party,” Faizal said, pointing out that the PKR is being split into two factions.
Meanwhile, Xavier Jeyakumar, a PKR member and former cabinet minister, rejected outright the reported proposal of Mahathir to form a “unity government”.
“We registered Pakatan Harapan, which was the majority in parliament. I do not know why we want to form a unity government. The people voted, and Pakatan was given the mandate.”
The electoral reform group, Bersih 2.0 also issued a statement on Tuesday saying that it “opposes” such a plan “as it goes against the spirit of democracy”.
Having a unity government would mean “there would be no parties to do effective check and balances to hold the government accountable.”
As this developed, the senior coalition member, who earlier spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said a new prime minister needs to be appointed as soon as possible. Otherwise, the country would be plagued by uncertainty which would not be good for the economy and stability.
The political drama led to huge selling in the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange on Tuesday.
Ratings giant Moody’s Investors Service said Mahathir’s resignation weighs on private investment and if prolonged, it will compound growth challenges and add downside risks to the country’s credit profile.
The latest political developments “usher in a period of uncertainty for the country, because it is unclear as to how or when a new government will be formed”, said Moody’s analyst, Christian Fang, in a statement on Tuesday morning.
Malaysians should realize that @AzminAli has put his own political ambitions above the interest of the nation. At the moment when we are facing serious economic challenges, his 'move' has put the economic stimulus package in jeopardy…
— Ong Kian Ming 🇲🇾 (@imokman) February 24, 2020
Moody’s expects Malaysia’s 2020 real GDP growth to slow down to 4.2 percent from a 10-year low of 4.3 percent in 2019, with downside risks from ongoing global trade tensions as well as the coronavirus outbreak, which has also affected the country.
Return of the old regime?
Events in recent days have angered many Malaysians, who saw attempts to form a new government as a backdoor strategy for the old regime to regain power.
“The 14th general elections [in 2018] was unprecedented in Malaysia’s history, as people came out in force to vote for change and rejected the corrupt and divisive politics of the past,” Melissa Sasidaran, director of Lawyers for Liberty, said.
While Mahathir’s coalition has faced some challenges, she said progress was also being made.
“Unfortunately, the coalition has also been tainted by the relentless tussle for power,” Sasidaran added, urging the elected members of parliament to prevent the country from reverting “to the old corrupt and divisive politics that we voted to leave behind.”