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AP Explains: Malaysia political upheaval as leader resigns

February 26, 2020 GMT
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Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, center, hands out food parcels to reporters who was camped outside the palace following the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in Kuala Lumpur, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. After months of resisting pressure to hand over the premiership to his named successor, Mahathir Mohamad finally quit this week. But in a confounding twist, the 94-year-old leader emerged stronger than before, while his ruling alliance, which won a historic vote about two years ago, met its Waterloo. (AP Photo)
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Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, center, hands out food parcels to reporters who was camped outside the palace following the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in Kuala Lumpur, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. After months of resisting pressure to hand over the premiership to his named successor, Mahathir Mohamad finally quit this week. But in a confounding twist, the 94-year-old leader emerged stronger than before, while his ruling alliance, which won a historic vote about two years ago, met its Waterloo. (AP Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s ruling alliance collapsed this week after 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned and dozens of lawmakers defected in an audacious attempt to form a new government. The political earthquake occurred less than two years after the alliance won a historic election that ousted a corruption-tainted coalition that had ruled for 61 years.

A look at what happened and where things stand following what has been condemned by many Malaysians as a betrayal of voters’ mandate:

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WHAT HAPPENED?

The political drama unraveled Sunday as Mahathir’s supporters in the four-party Alliance of Hope and opposition parties began maneuvers to take over the government and block his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim, from the top job. Several of the leaders had an audience with Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah in a bid to seek his backing, but an announcement didn’t pan out.

In a stunning turn of events Monday, Mahathir’s Bersatu party pulled out of the alliance along with 11 lawmakers from Anwar’s party, depriving the alliance of its majority rule. Minutes later, Mahathir dropped the bombshell that he was resigning as both prime minister and Bersatu chairman. Sultan Abdullah accepted the resignation and dissolved the Cabinet, but reappointed Mahathir as interim leader until a new government is formed. So Mahathir got his job back, but everyone else lost theirs.

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WHO IS INVOLVED?

The defectors from the alliance are led by Bersatu party president Muhyiddin Yassin, formerly the home minister, and Azmin Ali, a former economic affairs minister who was once a deputy president in Anwar’s party but is now aligned with Mahathir. A total of 37 lawmakers left the alliance and are eyeing a new coalition that is expected to be more ethnic Malay-centric. It includes the United Malays National Organization, whose former leader, disgraced ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, and several party leaders are on trial for corruption.

Another important component is the fundamentalist Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which is known for its zeal for Islamic laws and has strong support in rural areas. UMNO and PAS jointly hold 57 parliamentary seats. The group reportedly also has support from two other political parties from Borneo island that, if true, would collectively give it the majority to form a new government.

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WHY DID MAHATHIR RESIGN?

The political drama capped months of pressure on Mahathir, the world’s oldest leader, to hand over power to Anwar under a preelection pact. Just two days before the weekend drama, the alliance agreed to give Mahathir the liberty to determine when he will step down. Mahathir has kept silent since he quit, but Anwar and his allies said that Mahathir was not the mastermind of the plan and that he resigned because he didn’t want to be aligned with the previous government, which he had worked so hard to oust.

Mahathir’s spell as prime minister lasted only 22 months — far less time than his first stint as leader, which ran 22 years until he stepped down in 2003. Mahathir eventually buried the hatchet with Anwar to form a political pact that ousted Najib’s UMNO-led coalition, which had been in power since independence from Britain in 1957.

Analysts say the current twist of events have made Mahathir more powerful than ever, with all parties pledging to work with him as they seek to form a new government. Despite his advanced age, Mahathir could make another comeback with the flexibility to set up a new coalition with a clean slate.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

The king has begun an unprecedented process of meeting with all lawmakers to determine which one has the majority support to form a Cabinet or if fresh elections should be called. The king has a largely ceremonial role but appoints the prime minister, who must have majority backing in Parliament. The process, which began Monday, is expected to take two days.

Sultan Abdullah has urged Malaysia’s people to be patient and said he hopes to find the “best solution” for the country. Mahathir, on the other hand, clocked into work as usual on Monday and has begun meeting with political leaders from both sides as he weighs his next step.

In a new twist Tuesday, UMNO and PAS said they support fresh elections to let the people decide, indicating their camp does not have enough support to form a government. Many Malaysians and civil society groups have also urged the king to call for polls, with the electoral watchdog group Bersih warning of a mass rally if an undemocratic government is formed.