In a surprising and perhaps dramatic move, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tendered his resignation to the country's King, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, on February 24. Over the past few days, analysts have scrambled to provide a reasonable explanation of the unfolding political crisis in the country and foresee its potential trajectories.

Context and Background

For nearly two decades, the political rivalry between Mahathir Muhammad (94) and Anwar Ibrahim (72) has shaped the political life in Malaysia. Mahathir was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and a member of the National Front party that has been in power for six decades, and Ibrahim was his deputy. But the relationship between them became strained when Anwar was ousted in 1998 after a row over leadership, and then he was sentenced to prison on charges of corruption and sodomy, which were considered politically motivated at the time.

In 2018, Mahathir surprised everyone at home and abroad by announcing his alliance with his political archenemy, Anwar Ibrahim, in the "Alliance of Hope", which political analysts described as a "necessity" coalition. The understandings between the two men were established to cooperate in order to overthrow the former ruling party, but otherwise there is nothing that unites them except for the memories of rivalry that are difficult to overcome and forget.

Early on, there were signs of incompatibility and mistrust between the two men, after Mahathir sought on the first day in power to bring the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to a common ground. Mahathir was also able to split the "People's Justice Party" by attracting Mohamed Azmin Ali, Anwar Ibrahim's deputy, along with 11 deputies from the party, to a Kuala Lumpur mini-summit held in December 2019, in the absence of Ibrahim.

Dimensions and Implications

Under the "Alliance of Hope", which was formed by Mahathir and Ibrahim in the May 2018 elections, it was agreed that Mahathir would resign in 2020 and be replaced by Ibrahim, but tension flared up between the two men after Mahathir shied away  from announcing a specific date for the handover of power. Mahathir’s insistence not to hand over power to Ibrahim was driven by the fact he has the confidence of the majority of parliament members and the absence of a constitutional clause that requires him to resign. Mahathir's confidence was further boosted after UMNO, Malaysia's biggest and main national opposition political party, and PAS, announced their support for his premiership.

As Ibrahim and his allies continued to ramp up pressure on Mahathir to set a date for the handover of power according to the agreement, the crisis began to unfold with two the parties at loggerheads. As the supposed date for handover, presumably in the next summer, approached, Mahathir was faced with two options, either to hand over the premiership to Ibrahim or submit to pressure from Ibrahim’s opponents in the deep state, who reject the idea of seeing the latter taking the office of the prime minister. They consider Ibrahim to be too close to the West, something they believe risks undermining the country's sovereignty.

Domestically, Anwar's opponents believe that he seeks to undermine the privileges the Muslim Malay ethnic groups enjoy. The Malaysian constitution gives the Malays additional privileges over other ethnic groups (the Chinese and Indians), in terms of public jobs, government tenders, scholarships, land ownership, and housing grants. They believe that all of these benefits might be revoked if Ibrahim takes over as prime minister and embrace the idea of equal citizenship.

In a bid to avert himself any accusation of dishonoring his promises and pledges and in what appears as a last ditch effort to deny Ibrahim the prime minister office, Mahathir decided to resign. However, Ibrahim accused Mahathir and his party of "treason", saying Mahathir was seeking to form a new political coalition, with the aim of excluding him [Ibrahim] from the new government.

Needless to say, Mahathir Mohamad's resignation will deepen polarization in the country not only on the political elites' level but also on the grassroots’. In fact, wide campaigns are underway mounted by the Malay majority which calls for the formation of a new coalition that guarantees its rights and preserves "the sanctity of Islam". Additionally, the Malays believe that the current government is a threat to the rights of the Muslim majority in Malaysia. On the other hand, supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, such as Member of Parliament Maria Chin Binti Abdullah and the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), described the recourse to changing power through "back doors" and "disavowal of obligations and promises" as a "betrayal" of the Malaysian people, who expressed a will for change in the elections, and an "unethical behavior".

Future Scenarios

  • First Scenario: Mahathir remains in power, but through a new government coalition that excludes Anwar Ibrahim and his party without calling for early elections. This scenario may materialize in the event that Mahathir accepts to remain at the head of the government, which means reshaping the ruling coalition and removing Anwar’s supporters, who include the “Democratic Action Party” dominated by Malaysians of Chinese decent, and the “National Trust Party”, which split from PAS, and supporters of Anwar Ibrahim from the "People's Justice Party" after his split. Under this scenario, the new government coalition will incorporate PAS and UMNO while political parties in Sabah and Sarawak states in the eastern part of the country will remain loyal to the federal government led by Mahathir.
  • Second Scenario: Calling for snap parliamentary elections, especially as many Malaysians voiced their rejection of forming any new government without parliamentary elections. In a statement issued on February 24, a group of activists and academics expressed their refusal to form a new government without elections. According to the statement, the Malaysian people "will not accept, nor will they cooperate with a government formed behind the scenes to achieve the selfish goals of some MPs in order to protect their interests." But the call for elections may put the country in an economic and political crisis, as this process takes more than three months at least, at a time when Malaysia is suffering from an economic downturn and the repercussions of the novel Corona virus outbreak.

The first option (scenario) seems to be the most appropriate option for the king, given abundant indications that Mahathir still enjoys the confidence of the majority of parliament members. In this case, the majority of members of the government will be from UMNO, with the exception of former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razzaq. Anwar Ibrahim and his wife are expected to be excluded from the new government. Either former Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein or former Interior Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who have strong political relationships with Mahathir, is expected to be appointed as Minister of Interior in the new cabinet. This possibility is supported by remarks Mahathir Muhammad (interim Prime Minister) made on February 26, 2020, in which he said that he will assume full premiership if he receives the support of parliament, and that he wishes to form a government that is not loyal to any political party "but rather gives priority only to the interests of the state" as he put it.

* Executive Editor at the Journal of Democracy issued by the Al-Ahram Foundation in Cairo.


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