KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on Monday, plunging the country into political turmoil less than two years after a surprise election victory.
Not necessarily. It is possible that he could return at the head of a new government if it can put together a parliamentary majority. Several groups called on him to do so.
The king accepted Mahathir’s resignation but appointed him interim prime minister.
He has outfoxed opponents for decades during two stints as prime minister. The first was from 1981 to 2003 and the second since 2018, when he joined with old rival Anwar Ibrahim to oust the party that had held power for 60 years over accusations of widespread corruption.
Mahathir did not explain, but the decision follows surprise talks at the weekend between members of his coalition and the opposition on forming a new government.
At the root of the turmoil is Mahathir’s promise to hand over to Anwar under the terms of a pre-election pact.
Mahathir had been under pressure from Anwar’s supporters to set a clear timetable for ceding power, but he had refused. The argument came to a head last week and helped prompt the weekend talks.
Anwar and people close to Mahathir said he had quit after accusations that he would form some sort of partnership with opposition parties he defeated less than two years ago on an anti-corruption platform.
“He thought that he shouldn’t be treated in that manner, to associate him in working with those we believe are blatantly corrupt,” Anwar told reporters.
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy during his earlier stint as prime minister, but they fell out over the handling of the Asian financial crisis and he was fired in 1998. Soon after Anwar was jailed for sodomy, charges he says were trumped up.
The ruling coalition has also been under pressure after losing five by-elections since the 2018 election.
The fact that there are so many possible scenarios has deepened the turmoil. To win power, a coalition needs to convince the king it has the support of a minimum of 112 out of the 222 members of parliament. Some possibilities are:
* Mahathir returns as prime minister with the support of those who remained in his Pakatan Harapan coalition plus some support from elsewhere.
* Mahathir returns as prime minister with support of a new coalition - potentially including old enemies.
* Mahathir bows out, paving the way for a race between Anwar and an alliance of Muhyiddin Yassin, from Mahathir’s party, and Azmin Ali, who on Monday was sacked from Anwar’s party.
* No side shows it can summon a clear majority and the king agrees to a new election.
It’s hard to tell before a coalition is formed.
But the coalition under discussion at the weekend would have had a bigger representation of Malay interests than the previous one.
This could mean renewed focus on the country’s decades-old positive discrimination policy for majority Malays, who enjoyed preferential access to everything from public financing to a 30% quota for equity holdings in businesses.
Any coalition would be expected to say that it would fight corruption and address bread and butter issues.
As well as confusion, there are signs of growing public anger. Some Malaysians say the former coalition would betray them if it brought in politicians defeated in 2018.
Protests have become a regular affair since the 1990s. A coalition of NGOs, led by pro-electoral reform group Bersih 2.0, has raised the possibility of a mass rally.
The atmosphere is not helped by the flagging economy.
Malaysia’s economic growth slowed to the weakest in a decade in the fourth quarter of 2019 and the coronavirus outbreak threatened to pile on more pressure this year. The government had been due to announce a stimulus package this week.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Nick Macfie