Malaysian civic groups prodded Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday to set a clear timeline for handing power to ex-rival Anwar Ibrahim, and warned that failure to do so could break up the coalition that helped him regain power.
Mahathir, 94, took power after leading the then-opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance to a historic landslide victory in the May 2018 general election following an agreement that he would step down within two to three years and hand over the country’s leadership to Anwar.
But mudslinging among supporters of Anwar, president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the biggest party in Pakatan ruling bloc, and his deputy Azmin Ali, the current economic minister, has raised questions about the feasibility of that agreement.
“The current feud in PKR … is causing much concern among both our citizens and the international community as it has the potential to break up the coalition and cast our nation into political disarray,” the civic groups said in an open letter to Mahathir.
The groups, including Bersih 2.0 (the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), the Malaysia Action Coalition (GBM) and Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, demanded a “clear transition plan.”
“We call on Tun Mahathir [to] set a date, somewhere between a year from now to the latest May 9, 2021, to hand over power to Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim,” the groups said, using honorifics for the two politicians.
Although reports indicated that no time frame was stated in the agreement, Mahathir himself had promised on several occasions that the transfer of power would take place “between 2 to 3 years” from his election.
Mahathir made the promise after he and Anwar agreed to join forces and lead Pakatan against the Barisan Nasional coalition on the May 2018 polls, when Anwar was still in prison serving time over a sodomy conviction. Days after the election, Anwar was released from prison after the king granted him a pardon.
Anwar, 71, and Azmin, 54, both considered front-runners to succeed Mahathir, had verbally attacked each other after the release of a video purportedly showing a man who resembled Azmin having sex at a hotel with another man.
Azmin has denied allegations that he was the other man in the video.
Mahathir, meanwhile, told reporters last month that he would stick with the agreed plan to transfer the prime ministerial post to Anwar.
“Well, I have already agreed that when I step down, he will take over from me as prime minister,” Mahathir said, referring to Anwar, his ex-protégé-turned-enemy-turned-ally. “That is a promise I made and I will stay with the promise.”
The Malaysian leader is on a two-day visit through Thursday to the Japanese city of Fukuoka.
The feud within PKR unfolded into an exchange of sharp words after police detained Anwar’s top aide last month on suspicion of involvement in the dissemination of the sex video.
Amid the bitter infighting, former cabinet minister Rafidah Aziz urged Mahathir on Wednesday to continue his governance and “stop talking about transition [of power].”
“Let’s stop talking about this issue because the people out there – investors, people with the potential to become our business partner – are not sure where the country is heading,” Rafidah said in a speech in the administrative capital Putrajaya. “The transition problem has been identified as one of the causes of uncertainties.”
The open letter from the civic groups “makes voters think about what happened to the promises” that Mahathir made during the electoral campaign, Azly Rahman, a U.S.-based academic and author of books on Malaysia’s political, social and educational affairs, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
“The question that nobody can answer except Mahathir himself is: Who does he want to install as his successor, who would ensure his safe exit?” Azly said. “And the question for Anwar is: Will he be the chosen one?”
“In Malaysia, everything is a mystery. Of whims and fancies and sustaining of political dynasties,” he said. “It has not been a healthy democracy.”