By Asif Ullah Khan
If the Malaysians that thought wily Dr Mahathir Mohamad would change his stripes, they were woefully wrong. The man, who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years and returned to power after spending 17 years in the wilderness is a master of Games of Thrones and if his foe-turned friend Anwar Ibrahim thought this has a happy ending, he wasn’t paying attention.
The crisis present in Malaysia, which resulted in Dr Mahathir’s resignation is the result of the rebellion in his Malaysian United Indigenous Party, known as BERSATU, and his coalition partner Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
It is believed that restlessness in the Mahathir coalition partners came to boil on this issue of him making way for Anwar as prime minister, which was decided after coming to power.
Even at the age of 94 Dr Mahathir is mentally alert and is master at political manipulation and intrigues. During the last two years in power, Dr Mahathir showed no inclination to hand over the reins of power to a man, who he had earlier imprisoned on trumped-up charges and said that he (Anwar) could not be trusted to run Malaysia.
Apart from giving plumb cabinet posts to his own party members, Dr Mahathir made Azmin Ali of Anwar’s party, Minister of Economic Affairs, overruling Anwar’s objection. Azmin was given so much power that he started challenging his party chief.
At the same time, his other coalition partners, especially Malaysian Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), became uncomfortable with Dr Mahathir playing his old Malay race card to hide the failure of his government to deliver on the economic front.
A Kuala Lumpur-based communication strategist said wooing the Muslim Malay sentiments as for the first time after independence a non-Malay coalition came to power. Before this, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main Malay party, led the Barisan Nasional coalition with Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) as its junior partners has ruled Malaysia.
“Although Dr Mahathir’s multi-racial coalition had Malay parties, the domination of DAP with main ministries going to Chinese upset Malays. Malay Muslims feel that the Mahathir government policies and priorities have festered negative elements among the non-Muslims to speak ill of Islam and Malays,” he said, adding that is why Dr Mahathir started hobnobbing with his bitter enemy Abdul Hadi president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
He said this was also the reason for the rebellion in his BERSATU party. It must be remembered that when Dr Mahathir quit UMNO to form his own party, a lot of his loyalists in UMNO also crossed over. They were getting restless for two reasons. First, being former UMNO members they were strongly opposed to the idea of Anwar replacing Dr Mahathir. Second, with Malays unhappy with Dr Mahathir government, they feared backlash from their Malay vote base.
“Dr Mahathir’s party had people like Muhyiddin Yassin, who was deputy prime minister in the Najib Razak government. They wanted a new coalition with UMNO, PAS, MCA, MIC. But Dr Mahathir refused to have any ties with ‘corrupt’ UMNO,” he said.
After Muhyiddin as BERSATU president decided to pull out of the ruling coalition, Dr Mahathir outflanked him by resigning as prime minister and chairman of BERSATU.
The political observers say this was a masterstroke by the grand old man of Malaysian politics as the King appointed Dr Mahathir as interim prime minister, giving him ample time to stitch a new coalition.
In the 222-member parliament known as Dewan Rayakt, none of the parties can reach the magical figure of 112 to form the government. As a result, Dr Mahathir has become the pivot around whom the desperate small parties and breakaway factions are rallying. Anwar and breakaway faction of his PKR want Dr Mahathir to be prime minister. So, is the case of Muhyiddin, who as BERSATU president, had decided to pull out of Dr Mahathir’s coalition government. Even his bitter rivals UMNO and PAS are ready to support him.
With the King announcing that the parliament will elect a new prime minister, it looks certain that Dr Mahathir will remain as prime minister with overwhelming support from MPs from both sides of the divide.
One Malaysian analyst has rightly said that this political cat has nine lives, maybe more.