Both are talented men, neither of them bad. However, the transition created an intolerable instability that put pressure on them both and those around them, ever eager to fear the worst in terms of treachery and betrayal. The past didn’t help.
All this the seasoned politicians of the opposition understood quite well as did ambitious souls within the ranks of Pakatan Harapan (the coalition Mahathir led with a minority party on the understanding the majority party leader, Anwar, would ultimately take over).
Fear on the one hand and incitement on the other meant neither man could entirely trust the other – far from it. Mahathir, not called the ‘sly old fox’ of Malaysian politics for nothing, played his hand in the way he clearly reckoned it worked best – power to be concentrated at the top.
However, as a minority leader, that took some doing. For the last two years he has flirted with brazen rebels in Anwar’s own party, frustrating the newly re-installed leader from being able to restore discipline in PKR after years in jail. That helped the prime minister keep the whip hand but undermined his agreed successor.
Mahathir also failed to damp down rampant rumours of alleged flirtations with the opposition parties both drenched in corrupt practice, all in the name of Malay unity. Again this undermined his chief allies from progressive parties and his designated successor, creating fear and suspicion all around him.
UMNO, PAS and the PKR rebel Azmin Ali saw their opportunity to wreak havoc with such material and worked at it for months, building allegiances, spreading rumours and waiting for their moment. What none of these entities could afford, after all, was a smooth transition to Anwar, who would carry on with the prosecutions over 1MDB and other scandals … and deny Azmin his own ambition to become PM.
Nonetheless, despite the tensions, the coalition was managing to last. Anwar even stomached the continuing indignity of being forced to allow the old man to handle the entire transition purely on his own terms – the dictatorial instincts of a former strongman proving never too far from the surface.
What was more important, both men understood, was stability against the threat of the return of a deeply corrupted government that had brought the country to its knees, so they held together and Anwar agreed to wait patiently for Mahathir’s ‘right moment’.
The opportunists realised therefore they had to move, especially as their manoeuvrings were becoming more plain site to the public every day and the fig leaves had slowly fallen from Azmin’s strategy of playing an ‘arch-loyalist betrayed’. UMNO leaders were reaching the closures of their trials.
The attempted coup went into action over the weekend – a strategy of smoke and mirrors mixed with betrayal that it was hoped would succeed in breaking the patience and self-restraint that had held the PH coalition together and give the opportunists their chance to disrupt, snatch power … and even better engineer an election with the reformists shown to be in disarray, unable to govern.
Azmin had ten PKR groupies who came out in the end and there were players in Bersatu as well, who persuaded Mahathir’s mid-sized party (packed with UMNO ex-pats) to drive a re-alignment that would put UMNO, PAS and Azmin in control.
Yet, they had miscalculated because the old man balked. Yes, he might have listened and allowed the plotters their audiences and let them fawn, but he was not prepared to put the country back in the hands of criminals he had exited retirement to bring to book. Maybe he had hoped to bring more of UMNO into Bersatu, but he was not willing to put himself into the power of men like Najib, Zahid and Hishammuddin – self-interest as well as national interest prevailed and the coup had flopped by Monday afternoon.
As the nation reeled with a combination of shock and relief to see the old prime minister emerge from the palace having rescinded his threatened resignation issued at the height of the crisis a new dynamic now emerged.
Mahathir was once again cast the saviour of the nation. UMNO, PAS and Azmin, thoroughly rumbled, were now proclaiming they had only sought to support the old man against his ‘impatient’ allies and despite immense strains PKR, DAP and Amanah had remained loyal also.
The trigger behind the coup, which had been the accusation that Anwar was planning to himself seize power on Monday during an audience with the King had been shown to be untrue.
The opportunity had arisen to emerge spectacularly strengthened from the coup. The cartoon image was now of ‘Dr M’ – a Super-Grand Old Man, rising phoenix style from the ashes of resignation. It appears this may have been appealing to the strongman side of a prime minister who had ruled with an iron fist for 20 years and has been presently frustrated, trapped in a new era of minority party rule.
Today it emerged that as Mahathir set about rebuilding his newly patched up Harapan coalition government he had shocked his long-suffering allies with an unpalatable plan. The new coalition, of which his party Bersatu was no longer a part, would not form the basis of his government he explained to enquiring fellow party leaders (and indeed also to the palace).
This would no longer be a government based on party allegiances, but on personal allegiances to him. It would be a National Unity Government, glued only by the widespread support he had obtained as all sides begged him to return after throwing in the towel. All roads would lead to him only, a 95 year old man who had agreed originally that he would step down in two years after GE14 (i.e. in May).
Worse, Mahathir was listening to the protestations still coming in from UMNO and PAS that they were only seeking to be loyal to himself. He indicated some of the worthier souls from these parties might well be appointed by himself into the Unity Government. This was not palatable to the democrat parties who had supported his winning coalition in 2018 for reasons that are obvious.
Tuesday’s developments had thus returned Malaysia back to crisis, although for many hours most of the population were blissfully unaware of this fact as they waited for the appointment of a restored PH 2.0 cabinet.
The remaining PH parties, commanding some 92 seats (20 short of the majority needed to command parliament) conferred aghast as the hours ticked by.
Then, the UMNO/PAS alliance made their second worst mistake in recent years (following their decision to pretend they weren’t already secret allies pre-2018). Angered that Mahathir was drawing the line against certain of their more toxic leaders joining his Unity Government (people like Najib) the two parties pulled out.
It was announced that the brief intoxication of PAS and UMNO for Mahathir was over, they are now utterly opposed to him once more.
By yesterday evening Mahathir found himself no longer the darling of all sides, therefore. He had to fall back on the support of the same old players from the PH parties plus the East Malaysian phalanx.
Crucially, he no longer had the ‘Malay unity’ option to flirt with. Had the ‘Old Fox’ finally been boxed? If so, it was his own doing, since without PAS and UMNO he had still always had the numbers to restore stable government to Malaysia through his own party allies and wider political support in East Malaysia.
It was at this point that patience seems to have finally snapped within PH – a development not unrelated, surely, to the pragmatic realisation that the Super-Grand Old Man had just painted himself into a bit of a corner.
The King had been in his counting house for two days by then and it was clear that the majority of MPs were in support of Anwar as the next PM (in such times clearly two can play at the defection game). Therefore, last night the PH leaders made their move in declaring their support for Anwar to become prime minister of a minority government.
The intention, sources have assured Sarawak Report, was to encourage the prime minister to return in good harmony to the pre-coup situation of last Friday. He would be asked by Anwar to remain as prime minister till November if necessary, as had been agreed, but in return to respect his commitments and his party allies and work in a collegiate fashion towards the change.
Anwar, went to the palace to discuss such matters with the King and to express his intention, whilst confirming his position as the man who has the numbers now to take control. Anwar then travelled to attempt to reach a deal with Mahathir – one that would defer to a man respected by all Malaysia but stop short of a one-man-party government.
However, at 4.45 Mahathir pre-empted. He appeared on national television to say that he was not prepared to do deals and that he would continue to manage the government on his own in the name of stability.
The headlines were predictable ‘”I am not power-crazy” says Mahathir’, went one. The problem is that this is exactly how it can be made to look and, much as the country admires their leader, a one man government under the total control of a 95 year old is no lasting recipe for stability.
Pakatan Harapan has predictably responded by nominating their own candidate Anwar for prime minister – no longer a deal, no longer a negotiation and no longer so harmonious?
Talks are still on-going it would appear.
To be continued….