The fate of Malaysia’s ruling coalition is in doubt after surprise talks between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s party and other groups on forming a new government that would exclude his anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim.
The tussle between old rivals Mahathir, 94, and Anwar, 72, has shaped Malaysian politics for decades and tension has persisted, despite their alliance to win 2018 elections based on a promise that Mahathir would one day cede power to Anwar.
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On Sunday, Anwar accused Mahathir’s party and “traitors” in his own party of plotting to form a new government with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the former ruling party ousted in 2018 amid widespread corruption accusations.
He also said that a meeting convened on Monday by a group of politicians was a political “betrayal”.
Sources told Reuters that Mahathir’s party and a faction within Anwar’s party met officials from UMNO and the Islamist party PAS in efforts to form a new coalition.
Asked about what transpired during the Sunday meeting, which triggered talks about a new government, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told Al Jazeera that he was not at liberty to discuss it.
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Saifuddin, who was at the meeting, also would not comment about his future as the country’s top diplomat. The minister is a member of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party.
Malaysian stocks fell more than two percent when markets opened on Monday because of the political uncertainty.
Mahathir’s party, UMNO and PAS met with the king, media said, though it was not clear what they discussed, and whether the new proposed coalition would secure backing from the king, who plays a largely ceremonial role in Malaysia.
#Malaysia’s Economic Affairs Min Azmin Ali emerges from meeting of different parties that could decide realignment of the govt of PM #Mahathir as early as Monday. Azmin is Anwar’s rival from within the People’s Justice Party, which is part of Pakatan Harapan governing coalition. pic.twitter.com/dQDoYWhlS5
— Ted Regencia تِد (@tedregencia) February 23, 2020
Anwar to meet king
The king can dissolve parliament on the advice of the prime minister and his assent is required for the appointment of a prime minister or senior officials.
But it is unclear what his role would be if the ruling coalition changed without a change in prime minister.
Anwar was also due to meet the king at 2.30pm (06:30 GMT) on Monday, his spokesman said, but gave no details of what he would seek.
Devamany Krishnasamy, deputy president of the Malaysian Indian Congress, who was also present at the meeting, told Al Jazeera on Sunday night that Mahathir had the numbers to form a new government.
“This is politics. It happens around the world. The constitution says the Parliament can decide that any majority can run the government, and you must get the consent of the agong (king), as simple as that,” said Devamany, who is aligned with the current opposition party.
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Anwar and Mahathir united ahead of the 2018 election to drive out the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition that had ruled the Southeast Asian country for six decades, in a surprise victory.
But tension between the two in their Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition had been growing, as Mahathir resisted setting a specific timetable for keeping his promise to hand power to Anwar.
The coalition’s political fortunes have been waning with defeat in five recent by-elections.
Anwar also had a split with party mate, Mohamed Azmin Ali, the econonic affairs minister, who was among those who joined the meeting on Sunday night.
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy when the latter was prime minister during his first stint from 1981 to 2003. But Mahathir sacked him in 1998 after they disagreed on how to handle the financial crisis.
Soon afterwards, Anwar was jailed for sodomy, charges he says were trumped up.
With additional reporting by Ted Regencia in Kuala Lumpur