Malaysian politics was in turmoil Monday after leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim denounced a “betrayal” by coalition partners he said were trying to bring down the government and stop him succeeding Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar’s “Pact of Hope” alliance, which stormed to victory against a corruption-plagued government in 2018, was thrown into crisis after rivals within his coalition and opposition politicians met to reportedly try to form a new government.
Anwar and Mahathir’s stormy relationship has dominated Malaysian politics for two decades but they reconciled ahead of the polls, and Mahathir has promised to hand over power to his former foe.
But after the weekend’s political meetings, speculation is mounting that a new coalition is being formed that would exclude Anwar and many of his lawmakers, ending his hopes of becoming premier any time soon.
However, it was still unclear Monday whether the push to form a new government would succeed and Mahathir is yet to comment publicly.
Anwar said late Sunday he was “shocked” at the bid to topple the ruling coalition, describing it as a “betrayal, because there has been a promise (to hand over power to me)”.
He met Mahathir — at 94, the world’s oldest leader — Monday morning and told reporters afterwards that he was “satisfied with his stand”.
“We (must) not bow down easily to the herds that want to betray the trust of the people in the last general election,” he said.
Anwar — a former opposition icon who was jailed for years on widely-criticised sodomy charges — was expected later Monday to meet the king. While his role is mainly ceremonial, he must give his assent to the appointment of a new premier.
He had teamed up with former nemesis Mahathir ahead of the 2018 elections to oust the government of Najib Razak, who had become embroiled in the massive 1MDB graft scandal.
They led an alliance to an unexpected victory against a coalition that had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted for over six decades, and Mahathir agreed to eventually hand power to Anwar.
But Mahathir, in his second stint as premier after first holding the role from 1981 to 2003, has repeatedly refused to say when he will transfer power, stoking tensions within the four-party coalition.
– ‘Malay supremacy’ –
The alliance’s popularity had plummeted as it was accused of failing to raise living standards and protect the rights of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, and it lost a string of local polls.
After the weekend meetings, analysts said the government stood little chance of surviving.
According to reports, the proposed new government includes Mahathir’s party, the United Malays National Organisation — the party of scandal-tainted ex-leader Najib — and a hardline Islamist group.
James Chin, a Malaysia expert at the University of Tasmania, said many Muslims were unhappy with the government and believed the argument put forward by opponents that it was being dominated by ethnic Chinese politicians.
“They want Mahathir in power, and they want Malay supremacy,” he told AFP.
Race is a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia. About 60 percent of the population is Muslim but it is also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Many were angry, however, that the democratically elected government, which came to power partly on a pledge to push through much-needed reforms, could be replaced without an election.
The people “will not agree to or cooperate with any ‘backdoor’ government formed out of the selfish, self-preservation agenda of certain MPs,” said a statement from a group of leading activists and academics.
Some called for a snap poll, although politicians appeared to be trying to form a new government without holding an election.