At 10.30 am on Sunday, March 1, a week of attempted putsch and counter-putsch and political infighting which broke apart the ruling Pakatan Harapan government ended when Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) President Muhyiddin Yassin was shown in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister by Malaysia’s king, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, at the royal palace.
It also broke apart Muhyiddin’s own party and could well see the end of the outsize career of the departing prime minister, the 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, after 55 years on the national and international scene as a persistent advocate of ethnic Malay and Islamic rights. During the past week of turmoil, it seemed to hardly mattered if he was Malaysia’s prime minister, the interim prime minister or the former prime minister, he has been the central political figure in a drama largely of his own making, engineered to serve his own ends. Unless he can pull yet another rabbit out of his hat, he could be relegated to political oblivion at last.
The week saw intervention by the Agong, Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, negotiation and horse trading for support and a disputed decision as to who would be the new prime minister. Both the national Pakatan Harapan coalition fell, led for almost two tumultuous years by Mahathir, along with the Johor state government. The Kedah, Perak, and Melaka PH state governments may also fall later in the week as the implications of the new power shift, made up of the once-discredited United Malays National Organization, the rural Islamic Parti Islam Malaysia, or PAS, and Bersatu,, which switched sides and abandoned Mahathir.
However, this new coalition is very fragile, and will be subject to challenge in the Dewan Rakyat (parliament) when it is expected to convene on March 9 March. This parliamentary reconvening date may be delayed as the 1-year-old Muhyiddin, Mahathir’s former lieutenant, begins the painstaking process of negotiating who will take up positions in his new cabinet. Muhyiddin does not have the sole discretion that Mahathir had when Pakatan Harapan came to power in May 2018. He will have to dole out positions on the basis of support given, rather than merit and ability.
This will be complicated even more as many senior members of UMNO, a major coalition partner, are either under investigation, been charged, or currently under trial on criminal charges. What deals Muhyiddin did to secure the premiership are just unknown. For instance, UMNO’s leader Najib Razak is in the dock, facing multiple charges for his role in the looting of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which lost US$4.6 billion to corruption and mismanagement in the biggest scandal in Malaysian history. The deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahidi Hamad faces 45 counts of corruption and several other top UMNO officers face a multiplicity of other charges. Revoking the charges risks substantial public fury.
Anwar and Mahathir both now feel betrayed by treachery on the part of Muhyiddin that answered Mahathir’s own treachery and will not stand idly by. Only this morning (March 1) Mahathir failed in his attempt to have a meeting with the Agong, where he claimed he had a majority of supporters in the parliament. Consequently, Muhyiddin’s coalition will be challenged in parliament. This won’t be clean, as both sides are entering parliamentary procedures which will be challenged by standing orders and objections.
Today there is great public outcry and controversy over what has happened over the last week. Many already feel that Muhyiddin is an illegitimate prime minister because of doubt over the numbers who really supported one or the other. Pakatan Harapan trolls are going to town to portray Muhyiddin as illegitimate. Second, many people feel this “backdoor” taking of government is against the mandate that the people gave PH last election. There is clearly anger being manifested over both the media and social media, with even news agencies being blamed for being critical of Mahathir.
That is ironic, as only a few days ago social media was full of criticism for Mahathir, who put the crisis in motion with an attempt to put together a coalition of his own that would have ended multiracial and multicultural government in the country in favour of so-called Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay political supremacy. Such is the emotion generated by the last week.
On the other side, a recent survey found that 50 percent of 1,000 voters surveyed saw a better future under an all-Bumiputera coalition government. This is very much in line with GE14 voting trends, where UMNO and PAS together actually garnered 500,000 more votes than the Pakatan Harapan coalition at the time. This is also a dilemma for Pakatan Harapan. If a snap election were called after winning a vote of no confidence in Muhyiddin’s new government, it would be extremely difficult to defeat the new government at the polls.
To a great degree this crisis was brought about by the Harapan government itself. Its emotional leader, the long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was hesitant to take disciplinary party action against Azmin Ali, nominally his lieutenant, who repeatedly challenged him, and for Azmin’s allies in the party, for the 20 months they were in government. Anwar’s political softness cost dearly.
Second, the continued talk about leadership succession, with Mahathir ignoring his pledge to step down after two years in power, went on and on, giving the impression that governance was about who had power, rather than any commitment to work for the people who had created a political revolution by kicking the Barisan Nasional out after 70years in power.
This is the issue that sparked the attempted putsch against the Harapan government after a fiery presidential council meeting on 21st February. After the Sheraton putsch, Mahathir blundered badly by resigning, something he has done time and time again when he doesn’t get his way. This weakened his position greatly, allowing Muhyiddin to move from attempted putsch to coup d’état.
Muhyiddin gained extra strength when Mahathir on national television suggested an apolitical unity government. Although the idea was taken up by a few naïve political commentators, the symbolism of Mahathir’s suggestion indicated he had no other weapons left in the toolbox.
Finally, the biggest failing of the PH government was not failing on reform but failing on the economy. People in the rural heartlands and cities alike were suffering, with little sign of relief. The PH ministers, enjoying the trappings of office, started forgetting why they were there. The cronyism and rent-seeking that sank the Barisan government returned, and talk in rural coffee shops was about the strains of living, rather than political reform and corruption. 1MDB was just dragging on, where nobody was really understanding the media reporting. In the Malay heartland, a Muhyiddin government with a familiar UMNO, PAS, and old UMNO cadres in PPBM are seen as hope.
What this crisis has shown is that today Malaysia has a deep political chasm, which will always lead to divisive and adversarial politics. Half of Malaysia today feels betrayed, have of Malaysia today feels saved.
In the above light, the decision of the Agong in selecting Muhyiddin Yassin and prime minister according to Article 43(2)a “…..the (King) shall first appoint as…Prime Minister……who is in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the house’, is sound. Prime ministers can’t be changed by whim, and the politicians themselves failed to maturely approach this constitutional procedure. In fact, they made it extremely difficult for the Agong to perform his duty. The correctness of the Agong’s decision can only be tested on the floor of the parliament, not with SDs, not through press conferences, and leaking lists to the media.
This political crisis is far from over. We are about to enter the second phase when parliament reconvenes. There will be a troll propaganda war, plenty of political comment, amidst the assembling of a new government that around half of the electorate despises, and the other half waits to be recused.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel