Updated at 2:56 p.m. ET on 2020-02-24
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on Monday following a split within the ruling coalition, but the nation’s king asked him to serve as an interim leader until a resolution of the political crisis.
King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah accepted the 94-year-old premier’s resignation and, on Mahathir’s advice, also gave his consent to dissolving the cabinet, according to Mohd Zuki Ali, the government’s chief secretary.
“He [Mahathir] will continue to manage the country until the appointment of the new prime minister and the formation of the new cabinet,” Zuki said in a statement issued after Mahathir, the world’s oldest leader, met with the king at Istana Negara, the monarch’s official residence, in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahathir’s decision followed a statement from his Bersatu party that it had pulled out of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, in a surprise move after his allies held urgent closed-door meetings in an apparent bid to block the ascension to power of the PM’s appointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim.
On Monday, Mahathir also resigned from Bersatu.
Party President Muhyiddin Yassin, who served as home minister until the cabinet was dissolved, said the party’s supreme council decided on Sunday to quit the Pakatan alliance “after taking the current political developments and the country’s future into consideration,” Channel News Asia quoted Muhyiddin as saying. All MPs affiliated with the party had signed a declaration of oath to keep supporting and trusting Mahathir as prime minister, Muhyiddin said.
But after Bersatu’s supreme council held an emergency meeting Monday evening, it issued a statement saying it had rejected Mahathir’s resignation as party chairman.
Local reports said more than three dozen lawmakers had withdrawn from Pakatan, including a flank of MPs from its anchor People’s Justice Party (PKR) – Anwar’s party – in a political upheaval that thwarted the planned transition of power.
Despite speculation in the local media that Mahathir was involved in the deft tactical move, Anwar and other allies, such as Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, said Mahathir had resigned because he rejected attempts of former associates of the old government, which he had defeated in the 2018 elections, to join forces with him.
“His name was used, by those within my party and outside,” Anwar told reporters.
Anwar, who described events that unfolded on Sunday as a “betrayal,” said Mahathir told him that “in no way will he ever work with those associated with the past regime,” referring to the corruption-tainted former government led by Najib Razak, who is facing multiple criminal charges over the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB.
Lim Guan Eng, whose Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a major component of the ruling coalition, said Mahathir had informed him of his intention to resign as a protest over the “nefarious attempt” to topple the current government.
“Mahathir clearly stated that he cannot work with UMNO when we worked so hard to reject UMNO successfully in the 2018 general elections,” Guan Eng told reporters, referring to Mahathir’s old United Malays National Organization party, which had dominated national politics for decades before being swept out of power in those polls.
Guan Eng said his party would re-nominate Mahathir as premier.
Mahathir’s resignation came just days after a meeting on Friday night with Anwar and other members of the Pakatan bloc’s presidential council, during which he said that his political allies had agreed he would decide the best time to step down.
“I will decide when I will step down. It is up to me. They have full confidence in me,” Mahathir told reporters at that time in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital.
“I have said the transition will happen after APEC, but there is no time, no date, no nothing set,” Mahathir added then, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which Malaysia will host in November.
The Prime Minister’s Office announced Mahathir’s resignation in a terse two-line statement, which did not give an explanation. It came shortly before his allies raised the possibility that a new government would be formed after Bersatu announced it was leaving the ruling coalition and 11 legislators also left Anwar’s party.
Guan Eng said his party condemned “the treachery of some [Pakatan] leaders and MPs that attempted to form a back-door government to replace the existing democratically-elected [Pakatan] government with a new coalition.”
The 11 MPs who announced that they were “walking out from PKR and [Pakatan] to form an independent block in Parliament” included Mohamed Azmin Ali, who, as a result, was sacked as deputy president of the party headed by Anwar, with whom Azmin had been feuding.
Late Monday, Azmin and the 10 other lawmakers issued a statement in which they accused “some quarters” of Pakatan’s leadership of “trying to force Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to set the date for him to let go of his premiership and to hand it over to PKR president Anwar Ibrahim.”
“We are confident that attempts to force the Prime Minister to set date of power transition is an evil attempt to make the Prime Minister a ‘lame duck PM’ … Because of that we took the proactive measure to thwart the conspiracy to topple the Prime Minister during the midterm,” their statement went on to say.
‘A betrayal of voters’
Also on Monday, Bersih 2.0 (the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) and 41 other grassroots NGOs and civil society groups came out with a joint statement saying they were “extremely distressed by the break-up of the elected Pakatan Harapan” bloc through the departure of Bersatu and the defection of the 11 PKR parliamentarians.
“We view the attempted formation of a backdoor government as undemocratic and a betrayal of voters who voted for change,” Bersih and the others said.
“The Rakyat voted for Pakatan Harapan and its coalition parties based on their promises and policies in their respective manifesto. Such reconfiguration of the component parties mid-term through the shifting of alliances and defections has nullified the election manifesto of [Pakatan], the Buku Harapan,” they added.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Tommy Thomas told the news portal Malaysian Insight that there was no time frame for how long an interim prime minister could stay in power. He said that person could also appoint cabinet members.
But it remains unclear who could form the next government. Under the Malaysian Constitution, anyone who has the support of a majority of the 222-seat parliament can be appointed prime minister by the king, or the monarch can call a fresh general election. The king still signs off on most laws and appointments, including the prime minister.
The political chaos unleashed by Mahathir’s resignation took place less than two years after Mahathir and his Pakatan allies pulled off a general election victory, which devastated a coalition that had led Malaysia for 61 years.
Mahathir had pledged during the electoral campaign to clean up government and install one that reflected the nation’s diversity, and that he would hand over power to Anwar, his former arch nemesis.
He joined forces with Anwar, whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge, after leaving the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the anchor party in a ruling bloc that had dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain in 1957.
In the run-up to the 2018 general election, Anwar, who was then in prison on a sodomy conviction, formed a pact with Mahathir, in which Mahathir agreed to hand the reins of government to Anwar after two years in office. Mahathir took the oath of office on May 10, 2018.
After the election, Anwar received a royal pardon, was freed from prison and later elected to parliament in a by-election.
Noah Lee, Hadi Azmi and Nisha David contributed to this report.