Two days after Malaysia’s government collapsed, the pair of politicians at the center of the drama addressed the public Wednesday, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and one-time heir-apparent Anwar Ibrahim both offering themselves up as the nation’s next leader.
Mahathir, who resigned on Monday but returned a day later to serve as interim prime minister at the king’s request, spoke first, reiterating his call for a so-called “unity government.”
“In my opinion, right or wrong, politics and political parties should be set aside for now. If I am allowed, I will try to form a government that does not side with any parties but will focus only on the national interest,” Mahathir said in a nationally televised address, the 94-year-old statesman’s first public remarks since his stunning resignation.
Later, Anwar said that he and members of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition who support him would not betray the nation’s trust.
“Today, the PH members from [PKR], DAP [the Democratic Action Party] and Amanah have nominated Anwar Ibrahim as the prime minister candidate for the PH government,” said Anwar, president of the People’s Justice Party, the linchpin party in the Pakatan alliance, referring to himself in the third person.
“Pakatan remains committed to receiving the people’s trust and aspirations to bring the country to a better future – be it through the economy, politics or social issues. We will not betray that trust,” said Anwar who leads PKR.
Malaysians are closely watching him and Mahathir as they maneuver for the 112 parliamentary seats needed to hold a majority and lead the country, said Yvonne Tew, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University who has focused on the Malaysian constitution.
“[I]t appears to be a struggle between the current interim prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim as to who actually command the numbers for the majority of parliament,” she told BenarNews.
“At this point, anything can happen, but over the next few days it will probably be determined by political negotiations between the different stakeholders, [or] the role of the king potentially.”
Addressing what led to his resignation, Mahathir said that while he had promised to step down and let parliament choose his replacement, “in my opinion, because I was still supported by both sides, the time for me to resign had not yet arrived.”
Mahathir said he had “asked for time,” but because his Bersatu party and some of its allies decided to leave the governing coalition, the Pakatan government was no longer viable.
“Apart from that, there were also allegations that I did not intend to resign and was power crazy,” he said while apologizing to the Malaysian people for the political havoc and worry that his resignation had caused.
During the 1990s Mahathir, as prime minister, and Anwar, as his deputy, were members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that dominated Malaysian politics. The two fell out then and Mahathir removed Anwar from the deputy’s post.
But in the run-up to the 2018 general election, they joined forces to lead Pakatan in an effort to remove the UMNO-anchored Barisan Nasional bloc, led by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, from power.
Ahead of the polls two years ago, the Pakatan manifesto stated that Mahathir would hand power to Anwar after two years in office, and it was this arrangement that voters had endorsed in handing the opposition bloc its historic victory.
The interim prime minister said he feared what would happen if his Bersatu party were to join forces with UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), in trying to form a new government. Mahathir quit as the party's chairman when he resigned as PM.
“This government would be dominated by UMNO as the biggest party,” Mahathir said, adding he did not want the party that led Malaysia’s government during the nation’s first six decades to be in charge of the unity government he had offered to lead.
“I am willing to accept UMNO members who quit UMNO and joined other parties. But it wants to join the unity government as UMNO. This I cannot accept,” he said.
Malaysian media has named Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, an UMNO MP from Kelantan who has been described as a friend of Mahathir, as a third potential candidate to lead the government.
About an hour after Mahathir’s televised address, Anwar told reporters that he had the support of remaining Pakatan members to lead Malaysia. He said the coalition’s presidential council met Tuesday night and invited Mahathir to chair the meeting, but Mahathir did not attend.
“And because of that, the presidential council has determined that Pakatan’s prime minister candidate is Anwar Ibrahim,” Anwar said.
While Pakatan members believe they have enough support to back Anwar’s bid to become prime minister, he said they would abide by the king’s decision.
An official who requested anonymity told BenarNews on Wednesday that King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah had finished interviewing MPs. The official said the king had interviewed all but one lawmaker – MP Nazri Aziz was in London.
On Tuesday, the monarch said he would interview all MPs to gauge who they support for prime minister before announcing his pick to lead the Malaysian government.
‘Uncertain and unstable’
In Penang, a University Science of Malaysia political analyst said the king had the power to appoint the nation’s next leader.
“I believe His Majesty will put the country’s needs first,” Professor Sivamurugan Pandian told BenarNews, adding, “most importantly is to recover the confidence, trust and government stability.
“A vote of confidence [in parliament] happens only if there is a motion,” he said
Sivamurugan called the political situation “uncertain and unstable.”
“There is too much speculation and Malaysia is in a leadership crisis. Political turmoil has taken us here and we are facing a situation where no one knows what’s happening.”
In Washington, Georgetown’s Tew said any one of a series of scenarios leading to a new prime minister taking power could play out.
As she explained it, those scenarios include Anwar leading a majority or minority government; Mahathir continuing as interim prime minister until someone else is able to form a majority government; or the king dissolving parliament and calling for a snap election.
“In 2018, Malaysia was hailed as one of the outliers to the global rise of illiberal populism and nationalism worldwide, with its 2018 unprecedented national elections seen as a democratic breakthrough,” Tew told BenarNews.
“In some ways, this is why we are watching this particularly closely, to see how that story of that democratic triumph is going to end. It could continue along that triumphant vein or there could be a somewhat tragic end to that post-2018 narrative.”
Kate Beddall in Washington contributed to this report.