Malaysia thrown into turmoil as PM Mahathir Mohamad resigns

Decision by 94-year-old leader threatens future of southeast Asian country’s ruling coalition

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s nonagenarian prime minister, has announced his resignation, threatening the future of the ruling coalition and plunging the southeast Asian country into political turmoil.

The dramatic move throws into doubt the promise the veteran leader made to Anwar Ibrahim – his former foe turned ally – after the landslide election victory of their Pakatan Harapan coalition in 2018, when he said he would hand power to Mr Anwar after "one or two years".

Mr Mahathir has already gone back on that pledge several times and it was not clear whether Monday’s announcement marked the end of the political career of one of southeast Asia’s longest serving leaders or his latest political manoeuvre.

He also resigned as chairman of his party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).


“Mahathir will be the frontrunner to be the ‘next’ prime minister if he wishes to stay at the helm; there are currently few viable alternatives,” said Peter Mumford, head of southeast and south Asia at Eurasia Group. “Political risks are likely to remain elevated in Malaysia.”

After accepting the prime minister’s resignation, Malaysia’s king asked the 94-year-old Mr Mahathir to stay on as interim prime minister until a new leader was appointed.

On Mr Mahathir’s advice, the king also agreed to dissolve the cabinet, Mohd Zuki Ali, chief secretary to the Malaysian government, said in a statement. He added that the duties of all members of the administration, including the deputy prime minister and all ministers, had been terminated.

Under Malaysia’s constitution, the monarch must appoint a prime minister who has secured a majority of the 222-seat parliament.

Coalition talks

Mr Mahathir’s resignation followed talks at the weekend between members of his coalition and opposition parties, widely seen as an attempt to form a new coalition to replace the Pakatan Harapan.

Members of opposition parties including United Malays National Organisation and Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), as well as Bersatu and a group from Mr Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR) led by Mohamed Azmin Ali, the economic affairs minister, met late on Sunday at a Kuala Lumpur hotel.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Bersatu's president, said in a Facebook post that the party would leave the ruling coalition. Eleven MPs also quit the PKR to form an independent unit.

Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s finance minister and secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, said in a statement that the DAP would call for Mr Mahathir to continue as prime minister at a Pakatan Harapan presidential council emergency meeting, which was postponed until Tuesday.

“DAP condemns the treachery of some PH leaders and MPs that attempted to form a backdoor government to replace the existing democratically elected PH government with a new coalition,” added Mr Lim.

Mr Mahathir made a stunning political comeback in 2018 after he defected from Umno, the former ruling party that had led Malaysia for 61 years, and recast himself as a reformer.

Together with Mr Anwar, he toppled Najib Razak, the then prime minister and Umno stalwart, who is accused of involvement in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. Mr Najib, who is standing trial on charges relating to the 1MDB fraud, maintains his innocence.

Mr Anwar was Mr Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and heir apparent in 1998 when he was arrested and beaten by the country’s police chief. He was convicted of sodomy and corruption and placed in solitary confinement. The sodomy charge was eventually overturned but the controversy sidelined Mr Anwar from politics for about a decade. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020