Although Mahathir Mohamad's sudden departure from the top post came as a surprise to many political pundits, the country's power corridors have been strife with political bickering over the past week.
In Malaysia, a failed coup attempt by the opposition and ambitious members of the ruling establishment saw the consolidation of power in the hands of a man famous for proclaiming that he is ‘not a dictator’: 95-year old Mahathir Mohamad.
What started as an internal dispute during a meeting of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition on Friday erupted into a political circus for Malaysia on Sunday as members of the opposition, who were ousted from power in 2018 after 60 long years of governing the country together with the country’s hardline Islamist party, as well as members of Mahathir’s own coalition, met in a fancy hotel ballroom to tell the world that they have the numbers to bring down the government by the end of the day.
What differs from any regular coup was that instead of ousting the prime minister, the conspirators pledged loyalty to him and instead wanted him to stay where he is, but this time for their team.
Ever since their falling out in 1998, which led to the massive ‘Reformasi’ movement that saw Mahathir oust and jail his deputy Anwar Ibrahim on contested charges, these two enigmatic figures have been the polarising factor in Malaysian politics.
Things miraculously changed however when Mahathir came back from retirement and fought together with Anwar’s party (which was set up to oppose him), and unseated the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition (which they both previously helmed) led by Najib Razak, who brought infamy to the country in the shape of the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal.
That marriage of convenience which saw Mahathir back in the top office after 15 years came with an agreement that he will eventually hand over the position to Anwar sometime after the latter is released from jail, but before the end of the mandate, sometime in 2023.
The ambiguous nature of the agreement provided an opportunity of contention for the public, who are still suspicious about the warming relations of these two bitter enemies. Malaysian social media is rife with speculations of how Mahathir never intended to fulfil his promise but instead will stay on until the end of term, while keeping Anwar perpetually waiting in good behaviour and out of the way.
That point of contention became the straw that broke the camel’s back last Friday when members of the governing PH coalition pressed Mahathir to stop the tiresome guessing game and come up with a firm date for the handover to Anwar in the interest of national stability.
In an ensuing shouting match, Mahathir’s entourage from his Bersatu (United) party in the PH coalition threatened to break ranks unless the other three parties stopped putting their chairman on the spot, asking him to come up with a date. It was met with a challenge by seasoned veterans from the other parties — many of whom spent all but the last two years in the opposition.
“We’ve been in the opposition for so long, we know how to do it again,” said Defence Minister and President of the Amanah (Trust) party, Mat Sabu.
In the end it was Anwar’s diplomacy that settled the issue when he said that he can wait, and allowed Mahathir to take his time, as long as he needed.
Despite the goodwill conclusion of the meeting, the slight by their coalition partners was unbearable by the members of Bersatu, who met again amongst themselves on Sunday and decided that they were done with PH and wanted to break away.
Within the next few hours, polarising figures from the opposition and from the incumbent were spotted entering a ballroom at a hotel just a kilometre away from Bersatu’s headquarters in Petaling Jaya, west of central Kuala Lumpur including infamous figures now facing dozens of corruption charges after the fall of Barisan Nasional.
Amidst all this, one figure failed to show up as the long day waned: Mahathir himself.
What ensued was a confusion with the mutineers claiming that Pakatan Harapan had fallen, while the coalition itself was scrambling to contain the situation with Anwar coming out saying that the government had been betrayed.
"Now we are waiting for further information but there were attempts to bring down the Pakatan government involving our former friend Bersatu and a small fraction from PKR who has betrayed us,” said Anwar on Sunday night.
Mahathir’s deafening silence ensued into Monday when all of the sudden, news broke that Mahathir had sent his resignation letter to the king.
Anwar, who met Mahathir earlier in the morning, told the press that the premier was distraught by the coup attempt which used his name for their goals and pledged to Anwar that he had nothing to do with it.
“He reiterated what he said to me earlier. He had no part in it. He made it very clear in no way would he work with those in the past regime,” Anwar said to the press.
What followed was a scramble by both sides to claim seats for their sides as the people watched in confusion and wondered who was running the country, with Mahathir remaining away from the public eye hunkered up in his house in a leafy suburb south of the city.
As the dust settled, Mahathir was summoned by the king to the palace where his resignation was accepted, but instead of being relieved of his office, he was named ‘interim prime minister’ as no parties were able to gain a simple majority. At the same time, all cabinet posts were made redundant, leaving the interim prime minister as the only minister.
As the sun sets on Monday, Mahathir Mohamad, who vehemently denied that he was ever a dictator, rules alone over a country of 30 million people.
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