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Turmoil in Malaysia as PM Mahathir resigns

By AFP - Feb 24,2020 - Last updated at Feb 24,2020

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad motorcade arrives at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Monday (AFP photo)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on Monday in a shock move after his political allies sought to form a new coalition in a bid to block the succession of leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim.

It followed a weekend political drama that saw an attempt by Anwar's rivals within his own "Pact of Hope" coalition — which stormed to a historic election victory in 2018 — and opposition politicians to form a new government.

That coalition would reportedly have excluded Anwar, Mahathir's presumptive successor and a former opposition icon who was jailed for years on questionable sodomy charges, blocking his ascent to the premiership.

Anwar and Mahathir — the world's oldest leader, aged 94 — have a notoriously stormy relationship but joined forces to oust a corruption-plagued government at the 2018 polls.

Mahathir, who previously served as premier from 1981 to 2003, had made a pre-election pledge to hand power to Anwar but has repeatedly refused to fix a date.

With the ruling coalition's fate still uncertain on Monday morning, Mahathir's office made the surprise announcement that he had "sent a resignation letter as prime minister of Malaysia" to the king at 1:00pm (05:00 GMT). No reason was given.

Shortly before, Mahathir's Bersatu Party announced it was leaving the ruling coalition and 11 lawmakers resigned from Anwar's party, leaving the Pact of Hope in tatters and fuelling suggestions efforts could be underway to form a new alliance.

Despite speculation Mahathir — a wily political operator known for authoritarian tendencies during his first stint in power — was leading the push for a new coalition, Anwar insisted this was not true.

Anwar said Mahathir had assured him on Monday that "he played no part in it", adding he was "very clear that in no way will he ever work with those associated with the past regime".

According to local media, the new coalition would have included the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party of disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak, which was ejected from power in 2018.


'Nefarious' bid to topple the government 

Lim Guan Eng — a senior member of the Democratic Action Party, which formed part of the "Pact of Hope" — said that Mahathir told him that he was resigning in protest at the "nefarious attempt" to topple the government.

"Mahathir clearly stated that he cannot work with UMNO when we worked so hard to reject UMNO successfully in the 2018 general elections," he said. 

He added his party would nominate Mahathir to continue as prime minister at an emergency meeting that was scheduled to be held on Monday evening.

The final outcome of the drama was far from clear, however, and some analysts said a snap poll could be called.

Both Anwar and Mahathir had audiences on Monday with the king, although their intentions were unclear. While his role is largely ceremonial, the monarch appoints the country's prime minister, who must show he commands the support of a majority of MPs.

Many Malaysians were angry at the prospect of the democratically elected government being 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.

Anwar had teamed up with former nemesis Mahathir to oust the government of Najib, who had become embroiled in the massive 1MDB graft scandal, and they led their alliance to victory against a coalition that had ruled Malaysia for six decades.

The pair's difficult relationship has dominated Malaysia's political landscape for over two decades. Anwar was sacked from government in the 1990s by Mahathir and then convicted of corruption and sodomy, in what his critics said was a politically motivated case.

The Pact of Hope had always seemed an uneasy alliance and their popularity had been falling, as they were accused by critics of failing to look after the country's ethnic Malay Muslim majority and push forward reforms.

Race and protection of Malays rights are highly sensitive in Malaysia, which is about 60 per cent Muslim but also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

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