Mahathir’s Coup Against His Own Government

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An unnecessary crisis of Mahathir’s own making.

The stunning events of the past few days have shocked, worried and bewildered Malaysians. The mood swings were wild and intense too.

Depending on the latest news they heard (whether real or fake), people exploded with anger, resignation or hope. In a short time, we have gone from demanding that Mahathir fix a date for his departure and grumbling about his policies to fawning pleas for him to rule forever.

All the main actors (except, strangely enough, Mahathir himself) put out their own version of events, each with their own spin, of course. Whether they were cast as patriots or traitors depended on who was telling the story and what their motives were.

It’s hard to tell, at least at this early stage, what really went on in the shadows over the last few days, but if you look at events over the last 20 months, it is clear that Mahathir bears much of the blame for the present crisis.

He could have built a strong, stable and workable coalition after GE14. He had the numbers on his side; he had unparalleled goodwill and support; he had the most multiracial coalition that was ever elected to office.

There was general consensus too about the kind of policies that should be pursued (the reforms agenda). It was a solid foundation to build that Malaysia Baru we all so desperately wanted and voted for.

But Mahathir being Mahathir, he had other ideas.


Ignoring the respective parliamentary strengths of his coalition partners, for example, he appointed a Cabinet dominated by his own party, tiny as it was.

Then he brought Mohamed Azmin Ali into the Cabinet despite opposition from Anwar and knowing that there was already a lot of bad blood between the two. Over the following months, he went out of his way to build Azmin up, gave him a significant national profile, protected him from scandal and quietly acquiesced in his Brutus-like role. He could have put Azmin in his place at any time but he didn’t.

At about that time, he also started creating doubt about the succession plan. Unsurprisingly, it generated a lot of angst within the Anwar camp and emboldened Anwar’s many detractors.

In addition, he started to openly campaign to get individual Umno MPs to join his party. All sorts of closed-door meetings went on. Some succumbed to his entreaties, most did not.

When that strategy failed, the talk shifted to creating a Malay unity government. The PPBM-sponsored Malay Dignity Congress last October became the occasion to bring together Umno, PAS and PPBM. Anwar, tellingly, was not invited.

At that gathering, Mahathir himself laid out the need for greater Malay unity by hinting that their disunity resulted in the loss of Cabinet posts, including that of finance minister, to the DAP. The narrative that the Malays were weak, that Islam was under threat, that DAP was controlling the government, was suddenly ramped up.

Mahathir’s message was clear enough: the Malays needed to be united (under his leadership, of course) to stave off the rising DAP (i.e. Chinese) challenge to Malay rule.

Why would a prime minister with a comfortable majority in Parliament, with a multiracial, multiparty coalition behind him see the need to play such games unless he had other ambitions.

As a consequence of Mahathir’s constant scheming, the post-GE14 situation gradually became unstable. PKR and DAP, and to a certain extent Amanah, worried about what he was up to, became increasingly uncomfortable with his leadership though right to the end, they were extremely wary of openly challenging him.

It’s hard not to conclude, therefore, that Mahathir himself engineered this whole crisis. It’s simply not credible that someone with Mahathir’s stature, his grasp of politics and his sources of intelligence could have been caught off guard by the likes of Azmin and Muhyiddin, as his apologists are now suggesting.

Besides, he could have easily put out a statement disassociating himself from the whole scheme to form a Malay unity government and that would have been the end of it.

We were almost certainly headed for a Malay unity government (with token non-Malay representation) last weekend but it fell apart at the last moment because Umno made demands that Mahathir was unwilling to accept.

What he wanted was Umno without the “crooks and kleptocrats”, but it was not to be.

In effect, he staged a coup against himself and then tried to make it look like he had foiled it when it failed. In the process, he has left himself vulnerable.

He is, at least for now, a man without a party, a popular mandate or a Cabinet. His main advantage is that his rivals don’t have the numbers to bring him down and are too divided to work together.

His dramatic resignation is, of course, not the end.

As the interim prime minister, he has at least a few days to convince the Yang di-Pertuan Agong that he has the support of a majority in Parliament. It will take all his considerable skills and powers of persuasion to pull it off but if anyone can do it, it’s him. He is, after all, a master tactician without equal.

He would have preferred some sort of a non-party unity government with a Cabinet comprising individuals from different political parties sitting in their individual capacities. That would have left him in complete control. Opposition from Umno-PAS might now make that impossible.

What seems most likely now is a revived Pakatan Harapan. With or without Azmin and Muhyiddin and their dwindling band of followers, the numbers are already looking good.

The big question now is whether DAP might suffer some loss of influence.

Given the widely-held (though undeserved) reputation DAP has among right-wing Malays, will Mahathir find it politically expedient to limit their participation despite the fact that DAP with 42 seats remains a significant force in Parliament?

Mahathir’s immediate challenge now is to avoid an early general election. Without a party of his own, with PH in tatters and public opinion divided, he won’t stand a chance.

More than anything else, however, he would be loath to see Umno back in power because it could well mean a reprieve for Najib and the rest of the kleptocrats that he worked so hard to bring down. That would be too shocking to contemplate.

But time is running out. The situation could unravel very quickly.

If Mahathir can, as expected, cobble together a workable coalition in the next few days, he would have pulled off a stunning turnaround.

If he fails, we might see the return of the very government we voted out of office barely 20 months ago. Either way, it was an unnecessary crisis of Mahathir’s own making. – FMT

The views expressed here are strictly those of the writer Dennis Ignatius.