Malaysia in turmoil as Mahathir, Anwar vie for power

M. Jegathesan and Patrick Lee, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Feb 27 2020 08:55 AM

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) chats with Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during a function in Kuala Lumpur, May 9, 1997. David Loh, Reuters/file

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia was plunged into a bitter power struggle Wednesday as Mahathir Mohamad sought to form a unity government following his shock resignation, but old foe Anwar Ibrahim also pushed to become premier.

The developments deepened a crisis that began when the ruling coalition -- which included both men when it stormed to a historic poll victory in 2018 -- fell apart after a failed bid to establish a new government without Anwar.

Anwar was Mahathir's designated successor, but he would likely have been pushed out and blocked from becoming leader if the weekend bid had succeeded.

Their notoriously stormy relationship has shaped Malaysian politics ever since Mahathir -- during a first stint in office in the 1990s -- sacked Anwar as his deputy, and he was jailed on dubious sodomy and corruption charges. 

They reconciled ahead of the 2018 polls to oust a corruption-plagued coalition led by Najib Razak, but many were skeptical Mahathir -- at 94, the world's oldest leader -- would stick to a vow to hand power to Anwar.

Mahathir quit Monday as premier but it remains unclear whether he had a hand in the plot to topple the government, although analysts suspect he at least gave it his blessing. He has been named interim leader and initially appeared to have strong support to remain as premier.

But backing fell away early Wednesday and rumors swirled Anwar had garnered enough support from MPs for the top job, fueling expectations that Mahathir might finally cede power.

The elderly leader, however, announced in a televised address to the nation that he wished to establish a unity government, and was willing to return as premier.

"Party politics must be put aside for now," said Mahathir. "If allowed, I will try to form an inclusive government, not siding with any political parties."

"If I still have the support I will return. If not I will accept whoever is chosen," he added.

JOCKEYING FOR SUPPORT

Moments later at a press conference at his party headquarters, Anwar said he had received backing from three parties in the "Pact of Hope" coalition -- the grouping in power until Mahathir quit -- to become premier.

Anwar, 72, said the coalition had invited Mahathir to a meeting on Tuesday evening aimed at reviving the coalition, but after he failed to show they decided to put him forward as their candidate.

"Since the attempt to topple the government last week we have remained steadfast in defending the mandate of the Malaysian people," he said.

After reading a statement, he added: "We leave it to the palace to decide".

Officially the king appoints the prime minister, and he has been interviewing all the country's MPs since Monday to work out who they support. 

A candidate must have the backing of at least 112 MPs -- but it was not clear whether Anwar or Mahathir would achieve that, and there are likely to be days of political horse-trading ahead.

Reports say that Mahathir had already proposed a unity government to leaders across the political spectrum Tuesday, but they rejected the idea.

James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said he believed Mahathir, who had a first stint as premier from 1981 to 2003, would likely prevail in the power struggle.

"The best thing is to hold a general election, but both sides don't want it -- they are afraid people will punish them," he added.

The victory of the "Pact of Hope" alliance in 2018 was initially greeted with euphoria as it ended the six-decade rule of the notoriously corrupt Barisan Nasional coalition and prime minister Najib.

Najib was accused of involvement in stealing billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB, and is now on trial.

But the alliance's popularity quickly fell amid bitter infighting over who would succeed Mahathir, and it faced accusations of failing to protect the rights of the multi-ethnic country's Muslim majority.

© Agence France-Presse