KUALA LUMPUR – After months of resisting pressure to hand over the premiership to his named successor, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally quit this week. But in a confounding twist, the 94-year-old leader emerged more powerful than before, while his ruling alliance, which won a historic vote about two years ago, met its Waterloo.
Malaysia's king accepted Mahathir's shocking resignation Monday. The move came in tandem with plans by Mahathir's supporters to team up with opposition parties to form a new government and foil the transition of power to his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir's Bersatu party ditched the alliance, depriving it of its majority rule after 37 lawmakers left and throwing the country into political distress.
With the political situation murky, leaders from both factions raced Tuesday to secure support for a new government.
In an unprecedented move, palace officials said King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has decided to interview all lawmakers to establish who they support as the next prime minister. The two-day process started Tuesday with 90 lawmakers, each given a few minutes to voice their stand.
Disgraced ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial for corruption, and leaders from his United Malays National Organization were among those at the palace Tuesday. Local media reported that speculation is rife that UMNO can form a government in a new coalition with a fundamentalist Islamist party, Bersatu and two other parties on Borneo island.
In a surprising appearance at the palace gate, Sultan Abdullah said he was concerned with the crisis and urged people to be patient.
“Let me do my duties. I hope we will find the best solution for the country," the king said as he handed out food parcels to the horde of media camped outside the palace.
Mahathir, who also resigned as Bersatu chairman, has kept mum since the dizzying political events began over the weekend. Anwar and other alliance leaders said Monday that Mahathir was not the mastermind behind the conspiracy and that he had quit because he refused to work with UMNO, which he had worked so hard to oust in 2018 polls.
The focus now is on what Mahathir, the world's oldest leader, will do next. “Just another day in the office," he tweeted Tuesday, along with photos of him at his desk studying documents, after the king dissolved the Cabinet and appointed him as interim leader until a new government is formed
His office said Mahathir met with political leaders from various parties, as he weighs his next move. Mahathir has kept his cards close to his chest, but what's clear is that he has the support of all sides, which can pave the way for a comeback — with a clean slate. Both Anwar's alliance and the defectors trying to grab power support Mahathir as their leader.
“No question he has emerged as more in command than before. Every party has pledged to work with him,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. “This can be seen as strategy, but it is important not to forget that this whole debacle reflects poorly on him as leader and also does Malaysia no favors. My own view is that this may be a case of a strategy going wrong and hijacked, which he is working to resolve."
This was Mahathir's second stint as prime minister. A master politician, he was credited for modernizing Malaysia, but also was known for his heavy-handed rule during 22 years in power until he stepped down in 2003. Anwar was his deputy but was sacked in 1998 after the pair had a fallout, and was jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power. Anwar said the charges were trumped up.
Mahathir made a return as a political savior after he buried the hatchet with Anwar to form a political pact that ousted Najib's coalition, which had been in power since independence from Britain in 1957. His return was spurred by anger over a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB investment fund that sparked investigations around the globe. Najib faces multiple corruption charges for the 1MDB saga and is on trial now.
Anwar couldn't participate in the 2018 election because he was behind bars for a sodomy conviction that he alleged was politically motivated. But he was freed and pardoned by the king after the alliance won power. Mahathir initially said he expected to stay as prime minister for two years to clean up the government, but he has refused to set a firm timeline for passing the baton to Anwar under their pre-election agreement.
The weekend political drama broke out just after the alliance agreed Friday to give Mahathir the liberty to decide when he would step down.
“It's a tactical move to allow him maximum flexibility to form a new government," said James Chin, head of the Asia Institute at Australia's University of Tasmania. “He had to resign so that the entire government is no more. This allows him to set up a new coalition without any baggage from the old coalition. He will have a free hand to pick and choose."
Many Malaysians are outraged with Bersatu's move, calling it a betrayal of the mandate given by voters who wanted a change in 2018. The electoral watchdog group Bersih, which has organized large protests in the past, and other civil society organizations have called for fresh elections. Bersih warned that it would call for a major rally if an undemocratic government is formed.