'New Malaysia' government collapses due to factionalism and crony politics

February 27, 2020
A protest against the attempted 'backdoor coup' in Malaysia. Photo: Madhavi Madhu.

When the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) won the 2018 Malaysian general election — on the back of a sustained mass movement for democracy — it ended more than 60 years of continuous government by a coalition of parties put into power by the former British colonial rulers.

The election victory carried popular hopes for a “New Malaysia” freed from the corruption, inequality, injustice and repression of the old regime. However, it was also an electoral victory based on a dangerous deal with the country's octogenarian former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who offered, late in the struggle, to help topple the corrupt National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) government led by Najib Razak — if he was made PM again.

While the new government slowly introduced some democratic reforms and put the former corrupt PM and his cronies on trial, it has disappointed progressive civil society groups and left parties like the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) by continuing a neoliberal economic policy and failing to abolish repressive laws.

The biggest party in the Alliance of Hope, the multiracial People's Justice Party (PKR) is divided. The central issue of difference is when and whether longstanding, formerly jailed reformasi movement leader Anwar Ibrahim should take over as PM.

Mahathir publicly promised to hand over to Anwar but has stubbornly avoided saying when this would happen.

Less than two years later, a split off from the Alliance of Hope has reached out to corrupt MPs from the former government to form a new government.

This gambit was revealed publicly in a gathering of MPs and political advisers at the five-star Sheraton Hotel on February 23. The split group comprised 11 MPs from the anti-Anwar faction of the PKR and 26 MPs from Mahathir's party, Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM).

This move has been widely denounced as a “backdoor coup” attempt to form a new government with corrupt former ruling party MPs desperate to be let off the hook for their crimes.

In response, a group of young pro-democracy activists, with the endorsement of most civil society groups, held a night protest at short notice in the iconic Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on February 25.

PSM deputy chairperson S Arutchelvan (Arul) told Green Left the current crisis highlighted the need for the empowerment of working-class politics to battle the “opportunistic and avaricious” elite politics currently shamelessly on display.

“They came in fancy cars and held discussions in a lavish hotel to scheme to gain power and steal the support of MPs.

“The people are furious at politics and politicians.

“To them, all politicians are deceitful. This is what the public sees,” he said.

Arul said the PSM rejected such “gutter politics” and “backdoor coups”.

Mahathir resigned as PM on February 24, which effectively dissolved the Alliance of Hope government. However, the king then appointed Mahathir as interim PM.

Mahathir disavowed involvement in the split and resigned as chairperson of PPBM — but he has not left the party, which is made up of defectors from the corrupt former ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Since then, there has been a furious scramble for parliamentary numbers to form a governing majority, with key political figures and parties having conflicting claims about having the numbers. Both Mahathir and Anwar issued statements on February 27 effectively calling for MPs from other parties to support their bids to head new governments.

Mahathir's statement said he would soon form a “government of national unity” made up of individual MPs rather than political parties.

Arul told GL that Mahathir has become even more arrogant than before because, in the heat of the political crisis, all the major parties had rushed, at one stage or another, to publicly support him to continue as PM.

“All these parties claimed that this was in the interest of the nation, as the stock market and the ringgit [Malaysia's currency] fell sharply,” he said.

But, even as Mahathir was speaking on national television, the tide had already shifted, as the former ruling BN coalition and its new political partner, the Islamic Party (PAS), withdrew their support for him and called for fresh elections.

Arul told GL that Mahathir has now “lost the mandate to form a Unity Government or form a coalition government”, as he does not have the support of the majority of MPs.

The PSM welcomed the Alliance of Hope’s move to put Anwar forward as its candidate for PM and commit to honouring the manifesto it took to the 2018 election. However, it also noted that the Alliance had failed to prioritise implementing its own manifesto over the past two years.

In the meantime, the royal palace has become a media circus, as politicians stream in and out from audiences with the king, who will eventually declare who is to head a new government.

Such a government, when it is declared by the king, would be tested for majority support when parliament resumes on March 9.

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