Explainer: New battle between old Malaysian rivals Mahathir and Anwar

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The political chaos Mahathir Mohamad, 94, plunged Malaysia into this week by resigning as prime minister has turned into a new showdown between him and his old rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72.


Mahathir has proposed a unified administration without political party allegiances. Some lawmakers have announced their support for him.

Anwar, who has been waiting to be premier for 20 years, has been named as the prime ministerial candidate for three parties from the former Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition. He said he was opposed to forming a “backdoor government”, as suggested by Mahathir.

The ball is now in the king’s court after he met all 222 elected members of parliament to seek their views on who should lead or whether fresh elections should be called.

Mahathir has outfoxed opponents for decades during two stints as prime minister. The first was from 1981 to 2003 and the second since 2018, when he joined with Anwar to oust the party that had held power for 60 years over accusations of widespread corruption.


At the root of the turmoil is Mahathir’s promise to hand over power to Anwar under the terms of a pre-election pact.

Mahathir had been under pressure from Anwar’s supporters to set a clear timetable for ceding power, but he had refused.

Mahathir said he quit because his party wanted to pull out of the Pakatan coalition and form a government with the parties they defeated in the last general election.

His decision followed surprise talks at the weekend between members of his coalition and the opposition on forming a new government.

Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy during his earlier stint as prime minister, but they fell out over the handling of the Asian financial crisis and he was fired in 1998. Soon after, Anwar was jailed for sodomy, charges he says were trumped up.


The king has given no sign of when a decision will be made and the attorney general has said there is no time frame for how long an interim prime minister can continue.

The fact that there are so many possible scenarios has deepened the turmoil. To win power, a coalition needs to convince the king it has the support of a minimum of 112 out of the 222 members of parliament. Some possibilities are:

* Mahathir returns as prime minister as the head of a unity government. He selects ministers from whichever party he likes.

* Mahathir returns as prime minister with support of a new coalition, potentially including old enemies.

* No side shows it can summon a clear majority and the king agrees to a new election. In that case, parties that lost in the last general election may have a strong chance.

* An electoral loss for Anwar’s group may mean renewed focus on the country’s decades-old positive discrimination policy for majority Malays, who enjoyed preferential access to everything from public financing to a 30% quota for equity holdings in businesses.


People are confused and want the crisis resolved. There is still support for Mahathir but some have said fresh elections are a better option.

A coalition of NGOs, led by pro-electoral reform group Bersih 2.0, has raised the possibility of a mass rally.

The atmosphere is not helped by the flagging economy.

Malaysia’s economic growth slowed to the weakest in a decade in the fourth quarter of 2019 and the coronavirus outbreak threatens to pile on more pressure. Mahathir will announce a stimulus package on Thursday.

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