Malaysia’s epic power struggle

Asia Politics World

Author: Yang Razali Kassim, RSIS

After a brutal week of high drama, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has been ousted in a shocking power grab, replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin. The highly controversial change has also sidelined the ‘prime minister-in-waiting’ Anwar Ibrahim. But Malaysia’s epic power struggle, unprecedented in the country’s political history, is far from over.

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 March, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lim).

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 March, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lim).

A day after Muhyiddin made his first appearance on television as Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, a police report was lodged against him by Pakatan Harapan (PH) — the coalition he played a key part in ousting. PH Secretary-General Saifuddin Nasution alleges that ‘Muhyiddin has misled the palace’.

Muhyiddin, the President of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), was swiftly sworn in by the King as Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister following a power vacuum. He claimed to have the support of the majority of MPs when it was neither clear nor conclusive how many MPs actually supported him. Now-deposed prime minister Mahathir challenged Muhyiddin, claiming that six of the 36 Bersatu MPs were actually on his side — enough to tilt the tenuous power balance in the former prime minister’s favour.

With Mahathir casting doubt on the legitimacy of Muhyiddin’s leadership claim, the new Prime Minister will be tested when parliament sits on 18 May 2020. In this startling turn in Malaysian politics, Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali — who was formerly Anwar Ibrahim’s deputy in the PH- affiliated People’s Justice Party (PKR) — have emerged as the masterminds behind what is effectively an overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The Guardian has gone so far as to describe this as a ‘royal coup’ — a characterisation that was strongly objected to by the palace. The King, reigning above the political fray, has been careful not to overstep his constitutional prerogative. If any royal intervention was to have put Muhyiddin at an advantage, it is more likely to have come from the Conference of Rulers who the King had convened to help break the stalemate.

The new government will struggle to shake off its highly questionable origin. Many perceive its rise to be a naked power grab and an unprecedented political coup to install a ‘backdoor’ government through intrigue and betrayal. Soon after his ousting, Mahathir said he felt betrayed by Muhyiddin, arguing that it was clear his former home minister had been planning this coup for a long time.

A number of key players feature in this power struggle: Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Anwar, Azmin, and the supporting cast led by Zahid Hamidi and Hadi Awang from the UMNO–PAS opposition alliance.

How did Muhyiddin and Azmin end up co-conspirators in this audacious power grab? While the Malaysian succession scene has long been dominated by Mahathir and Anwar, Muhyiddin and Azmin, unbeknown to many, were two aspirants quietly waiting in the wings.

PKR Vice President Shamsul Iskandar, a former deputy minister, revealed that the Muhyiddin–Azmin partnership began in the run-up to the 2018 general election. With Anwar then in jail, Muhyiddin struck a deal with him pending a PH election win.

The deal would have seen Muhyiddin becoming prime minister for two years, handing over the top post to Anwar the moment Anwar received a royal pardon releasing him from jail. Muhyiddin tabled the proposal with the leadership of his party — chaired by Mahathir — placing himself as the candidate for prime minister with Azmin as deputy prime minister.  Mahathir baulked.

Azmin drifted away from Mahathir and Anwar by linking up with Muhyiddin to deflate the ruling PH coalition in which they were ironically all leaders. The PH coalition collapsed when Muhyiddin and Azmin, following his sacking from PKR, broke away with their supporters on 23 February 2020.

With hindsight, all of this could have been avoided had Mahathir kept his transition promise to hand over power to Anwar. Mahathir’s apparent foot-dragging and shifting of goalposts resurrected old fears that he never had any intention of letting Anwar take over. This was even after a fateful leadership tussle on 21 February when PH’s top leaders met to thrash things out. Mahathir’s abrupt resignation in response to the Muhyiddin–Azmin defections was a strategic mistake.

It was the trigger that was exploited by Muhyiddin–Azmin to unravel PH that caused the government’s collapse. Time will only tell whether Mahathir was a victim or the master strategist of a grand plot to undo his oft-declared promise to hand over the prime ministership to Anwar, the supposed ‘prime minister-in-waiting’.

When Muhyiddin later unveiled his cabinet, he broke convention by doing away with the position of deputy prime minister — traditionally a hot seat and source of conflict. Muhyiddin instead appointed four ‘senior ministers’ to accommodate the three groups that supported the coup. Azmin, a prime mover in the power grab, was rewarded with the portfolio of international trade and industry and the most ‘senior’ minister to stand in should Muhyiddin be away. This is despite Azmin being a relatively new to being a minister. As Muhyiddin is not in the best of health and on periodic medical leave, this effectively means Azmin may more often than not be running the cabinet. UMNO has expressed dissatisfaction with the distribution of the plumb portfolios, and the stunted return of its controversial leaders — particularly former prime minister and UMNO President Najib Razak.

Unhappy with its share of the spoils, UMNO has resorted to pot-shots at Muhyiddin, with Najib even warning that his party’s support ‘has its limits’. Mahathir has not ruled out making a comeback, notwithstanding his age of 95. Claiming that his party, Bersatu, was snatched away from him through deceit and treachery, he told former minister Khalid Samad that ‘it is not over yet’.  Anwar, the country’s ‘longest prime minister-in-waiting’, in spite of being betrayed by his deputy, remains a picture of inner peace and unflappability, while finally declaring his loss of trust in Mahathir. Despite his legendary patience, he is also not likely to keep still forever. Notwithstanding the return of calmness on the surface, Malaysian politics is like an ocean with stormy undercurrents. A tsunami may erupt yet again, any time.

Yang Razali Kassim is Senior Fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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