‘Somewhere between Game of Thrones and The Crown’: Malaysia’s political soap opera

Kuala Lumpur: "Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!"

As the sun set over the Malaysian capital on Wednesday afternoon and light rain fell, if you closed your eyes and listened it was possible – just for a moment – to travel back in time to late 1998 when Malaysians were clamouring for reform.

Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of the People's Justice Party (PKR), had just thrown down the gauntlet to veteran prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysian interim leader Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference in his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia.Credit:AP

Then, as now, Anwar offered the promise of a new Malaysia with a multi-racial, religion-tolerant, corruption-fighting and reforming government led by him.

Now, less than two years after Anwar and Mahathir joined forces to claim election victory and force through a change of government for the first time since independence 61 years ago, everything has gone off the rails.

Mahathir, now 94, first recruited Anwar, now 72, to his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – which had ruled the country for decades – way back in the early 1980s.

Anwar rose rapidly and became Mahathir's deputy prime minister by 1998. But when the Asian financial crisis hit, the pair fell out spectacularly over the economic response, protesters took to the streets, and soon enough Anwar was jailed on what he has always claimed were trumped up sodomy charges.

Through the 2000s, Anwar and his wife Wan Azizah Ismail, now deputy prime minister, led the reformasi movement and got closer and closer to taking government. But they never quite managed it until they allied with the newly-un-retired Mahathir and his new Bersatu party. Their union, the new Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, coalition defeated the UMNO government of corruption-tainted Najib Razak in 2018.

An orderly handover from Mahathir to Anwar was promised within two years. Anwar's prize was so close he could almost touch it. But the date began to slip, distrust grew and the coalition found that governing was harder than it looked.

Which brings us back to this week and the spectacular implosion of the Alliance of Hope, amid claim and counter-claim of betrayal, over-weaning ambition and power grabs.

Anwar Ibrahim speaks during a press conference at the headquarters of the Alliance of Hope after meeting the king in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday.Credit:AP

The breakdown and collapse of this government has been months in the making. And it's almost impossible to believe that after the last two decades, the two men are now on opposing sides once again.

Their supporters have never quite trusted each other – despite the confident public face put on by both men – and suspicion had grown that Mahathir favoured the younger Azmin Ali,  economic affairs minister and Anwar's own deputy in their half of the coalition – to take over.

Yvonne Tew, an expert on Malaysian constitutional law and politics and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, likens the contest between Mahathir and Anwar to two TV series: it's "somewhere in between Game of Thrones and The Crown".

She pauses for a moment, then adds it can also be compared to a Greek drama, in that "it could end in redemption or tragedy".

"While Australians may have seen contests like this over the last decade, situations like we have now – where it is not clear who commands a clear majority and what to do about that – place Malaysia in uncharted territory on the federal government level," she says.

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, center, hands out food parcels to the journalists who was camped outside the palace following the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in Kuala Lumpur, on Tuesday.Credit:AP

At the time of writing, Anwar had the highest number of backers, 92 votes, still short of the 112 required for a majority in the lower house. Both the opposition and the coalition had dropped their calls to be led by Mahathir. That reversal took about 24 hours – and it wasn't even close to the most dramatic reversal of the week.

The uncertainty grew on Friday after the speaker of parliament said he had rejected a request from Mahathir for a special session next week to choose a new prime minister. Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said he had received a letter from Mahathir requesting a special session on Monday, but it would not happen without an order from the king, Reuters reported.

Malaysia's nine monarchs, led by the king, began a meeting on Friday to determine how the next government will be formed. The palace did not say when the decision would be announced, or if they would confirm Monday for the vote or outline another procedure.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has spoken to MPs, staffers and politics watchers from across the spectrum of parties and it seems like no one really knows what will happen next.

The situation is somewhere between a bonfire of the political vanities and a circus.

The opposition, which has about 60 MPs, wants an election. They would fancy their chances of winning. Mahathir, who has perhaps 65 MPs, wants a government of national unity. Anwar, after so long, wants to be prime minister.

No one can say with certainty how this will end. And the instability is hurting the local stock market, damaging confidence in the country and throwing up questions about the very compact upon which Malaysia was founded.

Amrita Malhi, a Malaysian politics expert from the Australian National University, says the contest is fundamentally about a contest between multi-racial and Malay-majority politics. The former UMNO government, for decades, pursued policies that favoured the Muslim Malay-majority.

But the Alliance of Hope was elected to represent not just Muslim Malays but also the approximately 30 per cent of people who are (mostly) either ethnically Chinese or from the sub-continent – who Malays argue have an outsized say in the economy, despite decades of pro-Malay discrimination policies.

"There is a constituency that would be pleased that minorities are put back in their place," Malhi says, alluding to the outcome if the alliance and Anwar are swept aside and some version of the former government is returned.

"For people who invested hope in the former, their hopes would be dashed."

Anwar and his coalition are unlikely to want an election. The two-year-old coalition government still has a broad program of reforms to implement – and voters would mark it down for the events of the last week.

Anwar supporters – loyally chanting outside party HQ on Wednesday as they have done for more than 20 years – may be about to see their man once more denied the chance to lead the country.

But nothing is certain. As one veteran observer in Kuala Lumpur said of the two men: "their mutual animosity could bring about their mutually assured destruction".

Conversely, while Mahathir and Anwar might  come to oppose each other, there are incentives for both to scrambling together some kind of agreement before Monday. As unlikely as it might seem, this would allow Mahathir to fulfil his wish to chair a second APEC meeting in Kuala Lumpur in November and go out on his own terms.

If an election was held, the party of Najib Razak, another former Mahathir protege, could win and allow that former prime minister off the hook in the 1MDB financial scandal,  which would also torch Mahathir's legacy.

For Anwar, an accommodation with Mahathir – however unlikely it might look and however much it might alarm his supporters in the reformasi movement – might still be the smoothest path to the prime ministership.

Neither man wishes to see an UMNO government restored. But can they put aside their personal animosities (again) and come together one more time? It seems unlikely. This might be the final roll of the dice for these two giants of Malaysian politics.

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