Explained: Mahathir resigned as PM & party chief, then returned as interim PM, all in one day

What a day.

Sulaiman Daud | February 24, 2020, 08:59 PM

You may be aware of the flurry of news coming from our neighbour to the north.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has resigned, the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition has collapsed and is no longer in power, and no one seems quite certain what the future holds.

Pakatan Harapan

Pakatan Harapan (PH) was until recently the ruling coalition in Malaysia. It was made up of an alliance of four parties:

  • Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, led by Anwar Ibrahim)
  • Democratic Action Party (DAP, led by Lim Guan Eng)
  • Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah, led by Mohamad "Mat" Sabu)
  • Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM, led by Mahathir Mohamad)

This alliance beat the Barisan Nasional coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in the May 2018 general election.

Mahathir became Prime Minister for the second time, with the understanding that he would step down before the end of his term and before the next general election is called in 2023.

Anwar Ibrahim obtained a royal pardon and was freed from prison.

He then won a by-election in Port Dickson, making him a member of the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's parliament), and paved the way for his eventual ascension as Prime Minister.

Defectors from UMNO

But PH ran into problems.

Mahathir was worried about the low level of support PH received from Malay voters, the largest bloc in the country.

Less than 30 per cent of Malay voters backed PH in the general election.

To shore up his position, he welcomed MPs who could command the support of Malay voters -- even if they were from UMNO.

This swelled the ranks of the PH, as the defecting MPs mostly joined the PPBM.

But some members of PH were wary of these defectors.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, resigned from her post at the PKR in Dec. 2018, although she remained an MP.

She had criticised PH's openness to taking in MPs who had left UMNO, saying that it was a betrayal of the voters.

A question of transition

While Anwar waited, Mahathir began to drop public hints that he might not hand over power after two years.

He said that he needed more time to resolve Malaysia's debt problems, and said that he would not go beyond three years instead.

Mahathir still maintained that Anwar was his designated successor and he made a promise to hand over the post to Anwar -- but added that "many people" had asked him to stay on until the next election.

Mahathir pointed to the APEC summit, hosted by Malaysia and scheduled for Nov. 2020, as a milestone for when he would make the transition.

Heightening the tension was the conflict between Anwar and Azmin Ali, Economic Affairs Minister and Deputy President of PKR.

Azmin was once seen as Anwar's protégé, but their relationship had taken a turn for the worse.

It got to the point that Azmin openly called for Mahathir to serve a full term as PM, instead of handing over power to Anwar.

Forcing the issue

To make matters worse, PH suffered a string of stinging by-election defeats.

Things reportedly came to a head when the PH council met on Friday, Feb. 21, reportedly to discuss the issue of the transition and get Mahathir to set a concrete date for him stepping down.

However, the meeting concluded without a set date. According to the New Straits Times, Mahathir said the PH council entrusted him to decide when he would step down.

Mahathir again referred to the APEC summit as a likely date. Anwar said he supported the decision and that he would be patient.

A flurry of meetings

But speculation ran rampant on Sunday, Feb. 23, as various political parties including UMNO and PPBM held "emergency meetings".

Azmin was also spotted, with rumours that he was planning to lead a breakaway faction of MPs from the PKR.

This fuelled speculation that Mahathir was planning to take PPBM out of PH.

This would cause the PH to collapse, as it would no longer have a majority of MPs in the Dewan Rakyat.

If PPBM, UMNO, PAS, the opposition Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and other opposition MPs joined forces with Azmin's rebel faction, then they could form a new ruling majority, and therefore a new government.

Anwar called the developments a "betrayal" of the voting public.

Although Malaysian media anticipated the announcement of this new coalition that night, they had to wait till the next day for further developments.

February 24, 2020

Monday, Feb. 24, would prove to be a momentous day in Malaysian political history.

PH party leaders including Lim Guan Eng, Mat Sabu and Anwar met with Mahathir at his residence.

After the meeting concluded, Anwar sounded surprisingly positive.

He said that it was a good meeting, and that PKR was satisfied with Mahathir's commitment to the agenda and principles of reform.

Mahathir resigns, PPBM leaves PH

At around 1:50pm, Mahathir submitted his resignation as PM to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia's king.

PPBM president Muhyiddin Yassin announced that PPBM would leave PH, thereby triggering the collapse of the ruling coalition.

PKR announced that Azmin and vice president Zuraida Kamaruddin were sacked from the party for their politicking.

Azmin sacked

Azmin announced on Facebook that a number of PKR MPs will follow him out of the party, including Saifuddin Abdullah, the serving Foreign Minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and her husband Anwar headed to Istana Negara for a meeting with the king.

While Azmin's group headed to Mahathir's residence for a meeting, both Amanah and DAP declared their continued support for Mahathir as Prime Minister.

Anwar: Mahathir is not behind this

Around 3:00pm, about an hour after Muhyiddin announced PPBM's exit from PH, Mahathir announced that he was also resigning as PPBM's Chairman.

After his meeting with the King, Anwar returned to PKR headquarters and took questions from the media.

He revealed that he had pleaded with Mahathir not to resign.

Also, he said that he thought Mahathir played no part in the attempt to topple the PH. Said Anwar, according to Malaysiakini:

"No, I think it was not him, his name was used (by) those within my party and outside, you know, using his name. And (Mahathir) reiterated what he has said earlier, he played no part in it.

He had been very clear, there is no way he will ever work with those who had been associated with the past regime."

Interim Prime Minister

Mahathir then left for a meeting with the king, which lasted until he left the Istana Negara at around 6:20pm.

Anwar said that PH would hold another meeting, as UMNO secretary-general Annuar Musa reiterated his party's intention to remain standing with PAS.

At 7:00pm, the king announced that he accepted Mahathir's resignation, but also appointed him as interim Prime Minister, which would last for a maximum of 10 days, according to Malaysiakini.

However, Malaysiakini later reported that Attorney-General Tommy Thomas stated there is no time limit attached to the office of interim PM, and that he can appoint Cabinet members at his discretion.

No matter what happens next, this has been a landmark day for Malaysia.

Here's what went down:

Top image from Mahathir Mohamad's Facebook page.