What’s Going On in Malaysia’s Game of Thrones?

Mahathir - New Naratif

Almost two years after regime change in Malaysia, Malaysians were treated to a spectacle of political turmoil as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad handed in his resignation amid struggles between factions and parties over the course of a dramatic weekend. It’s been dizzying trying to catch up with the updates on social media. In this explainer, we boil all the drama down to its main plot points, and answer some questions about what might lie ahead.

First, the background. 

The Barisan Nasional coalition first came to power in 1957, and went on to rule Malaysia for over five decades. For 22 years, Mahathir Mohammad was Prime Minister and leader of the Barisan Nasional coalition (of which UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, was the backbone). 

In 1998, Mahathir had a very public fallout with his then-Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. The latter was removed from government and ended up in jail on allegedly trumped-up charges. Mahathir resigned in 2003 and, whilst never hesitant to share his thoughts in the ensuing years, was largely in sunset mode.

That was until 2015, when the 1MDB scandal broke. Prime Minister Najib Razak was implicated in a gargantuan corruption scandal which drew worldwide investigations. After Mahathir’s attempts to replace Najib within UMNO failed, he resigned from UMNO and established the United Malays Indigenous Party (BERSATU). What raised more eyebrows was his willingness to join forces with former opponent Anwar’s multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the religious National Trust Party (AMANAH) to form the Pakatan Harapan coalition. They arrived at a deal, under which Mahathir would be Prime Minister for two years, followed by a handover to Anwar. 

Tensions have been boiling as the two-year handover date draws closer with no clear commitment on an exact date for the premiership to transfer to Anwar.

In an electoral miracle, Pakatan Harapan and its allies ousted the ruling Barisan Nasional in the 2018 general election. Many politicians from UMNO have since been investigated for corruption, abuse of power and money-laundering. Many Malaysians hoped that these moves toward accountability, under a new coalition government that had made promises to repeal oppressive laws, meant that there would be a “new Malaysia”. 

But the joy has been short-lived. Tensions have been boiling as the two-year handover date draws closer with no clear commitment on an exact date for the premiership to transfer to Anwar. Racial tensions have been rife, as the Malay ethno-nationalist opposition parties of UMNO and Parti Agama Se-Malaya (PAS) accused Pakatan Harapan’s DAP of threatening Malay dominance—a highly sensitive and politicised issue in the majority Malay-Muslim country. 

Wait, Mahathir’s resigned as Prime Minister? What happened there?! 

On 21 February 2020, a Pakatan Harapan council meeting was convened to discuss the handover of power from Mahathir to Anwar. While many expected a specific date to be determined, it was finally decided that Mahathir would have discretion over when a handover would take place, presumably after Malaysia hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November.

Unexpectedly, on 23 February 2020, several BERSATU leaders, a faction of PKR Members of Parliament led by then-Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali (who had fallen out with his party boss Anwar), as well as UMNO and PAS leaders congregated at the Sheraton Hotel in Selangor. With rumours flying that a new coalition was being formed on the sidelines, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Mahathir and BERSATU had double-crossed its Pakatan Harapan partners in a bid to hang on to power and avoid handing over the top job. Previous reports of tensions between factions of PKR—to do with both Anwar and Azmin jostling to take over the premiership—had also primed people to believe that all sorts of funny business were possible.

People were furious at the prospect of UMNO being back in power, despite the fact that multiple members of the party are currently facing corruption charges. It appeared almost certain that a new government comprising MPs from the factions and parties named above would replace the Pakatan Harapan government. 

Except that it didn’t. 

Instead of consolidating his power (as expected by most onlookers just a day before), the elder statesman submitted his resignation as prime minister to the Agong.

A scheduled press conference was cancelled. Malaysians were left with an epic cliffhanger on Sunday night. On 24 February 2020, in a dramatic turn of events, it was reported that Mahathir had actually not supported the coup against Pakatan Harapan. As of the time of publishing, it appears that Mahathir had disagreed with plans to work with UMNO. Instead of consolidating his power (as expected by most onlookers just a day before), the elder statesman submitted his resignation as prime minister to Malaysia’s monarch, the Agong. While he himself has so far stayed mum about the reasons behind his actions, both Anwar and DAP’s Lim Guan Eng have said that his action had been a rejection of UMNO. Not long after that, Mahathir also resigned as chairperson of BERSATU, an hour after the party’s president announced their departure from Pakatan Harapan. While the Agong has accepted his resignation, he’s also appointed Mahathir interim prime minister pending the appointment of a premier.  

So the prime minister is gone. What happens to the Cabinet and government?

The chief secretary to the government recently issued a statement that the Malaysian Cabinet has been dissolved effective immediately, in line with the resignation of the Prime Minister. This means that all ministers have been relieved of their duties, and there’s technically no Malaysian Cabinet at the moment. 

In the meantime, Mahathir will act as an interim Prime Minister to guide the government machinery and civil servants through these unchartered waters. This isn’t unusual in a Westminster parliamentary democracy—caretaker and acting governments happen all the time, especially when a head of government suddenly dies, or when a general election is being conducted. 

Since the prime minister has resigned, does this mean Parliament is dissolved? Are Malaysians going to head to the polls again soon? 

Not necessarily. 

When a prime minister loses his majority, he has two options. He can submit his resignation, in which case the Agong will appoint a new prime minister. Alternatively, he can request the Agong to dissolve Parliament—however, the Agong has the power to choose between agreeing to the dissolution, or rejecting the request and thereafter demanding the prime minister’s resignation. 

While it might be unlikely, the dissolution of Parliament and a fresh general election should not be ruled out. 

It isn’t clear yet what happened here: if Mahathir had simply submitted his resignation, or if he’d recommended that Parliament be dissolved, only to be asked to resign instead. All evidence suggests that the Agong is now assessing who the next prime minister should be. The dissolution of Parliament is therefore not on the cards at the moment. It’s a bit of a legal grey area whether an interim prime minister would be able to request the dissolution of Parliament in the event of a failure to identify an individual who can command the confidence of the majority of parliamentarians.

Long story short: while it might be unlikely, the dissolution of Parliament and a fresh general election should not be ruled out. 

Can the Agong dissolve Parliament on his own volition?

No. As with all constitutional monarchs, the Agong must almost always act according to the advice of the prime minister. It’s only upon the prime minister’s advice that an Agong can dissolve Parliament.

How does the Agong choose a prime minister?

According to Article 43(2) of the Federal Constitution, the Agong has to, in his wisdom, choose a person whom His Majesty believes commands the confidence of the majority of MPs in Parliament. According to Malaysian law, there need not be a vote in Parliament on who commands the confidence of the majority of MPs—it can be established through other means, such as statutory declarations, etc. 

The numbers game: who can form the new government? 

Since the Malaysian Parliament has 222 seats, the majority needed to form a government is at least 112 seats.

What’s left of Pakatan Harapan—namely Anwar Ibrahim’s faction in PKR, DAP and Amanah— and its Sabah-based ally Warisan, have around 101 seats collectively.

UMNO (and a few minor Barisan Nasional parties), PAS, the rest of BERSATU and Azmin’s faction in PKR have roughly 97 seats.

That places the Sarawak-based Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which has 18 seats, and several splinter Eastern Malaysian parties, in the position of kingmaker in Malaysian politics. 

One also shouldn’t rule out that BERSATU would collaborate again with PKR, DAP and Amanah—in BERSATU’s emergency meeting on 24 February, it “rejected” Mahathir’s resignation and appeared to be still loyal to him.

There’ll be intense horse-trading and attempts to form a coalition over the next few days.

There’ll be intense horse-trading and attempts to form a coalition over the next few days. This is an evolving story and it’s hard to predict which parties will turn up victorious or be relegated. Will Mahathir stay on as prime minister in a brand new coalition? Will UMNO and its leaders wrestle their way back to Putrajaya? Will Anwar Ibrahim finally become prime minister? 

Right now, no one can tell. 

What does this mean for the Malaysian people?

There is a Malay idiom which states: “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah (When elephants fight, the mousedeer in the middle is the casualty).” This probably encapsulates the current feelings of the majority of Malaysians. 

Amidst a weak economy, the COVID-19 outbreak and fragile race relations, this recent tense political chess game is the last thing Malaysia needs. To many, it’s a deep betrayal of the blood, sweat and tears they went through in the last general election to depose UMNO and Barisan Nasional. Minority Malaysians are also worried of a pure Muslim-Malay dominant coalition, which may emerge as the new government in place of the multiracial Pakatan Harapan coalition. What happens in the next few days will be determinative of the destiny of Malaysia in the years to come.

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