As Muhyiddin tastes power, who’s the biggest loser? Not Mahathir

A file picture taken in 1996 when (from left) Muhyiddin Yassin, Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak were together in Umno. Three of the four have since become prime minister, in differing situations.

KUALA LUMPUR: Muhyiddin Yassin has been sworn in today as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, at the end of a week of turmoil when friends turned enemy and then became friends again. But the political fallout will take a long time to settle.

Sources say the new prime minister is aware of what’s at stake, and will have to be cautious not to rattle his fragile coalition.

An insider who acted as a go-between for rival factions in PPBM told FMT that the two coalitions – Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional and the dethroned Pakatan Harapan – each has a potent weapon to use.

“For Pakatan, it is the fact that Dr Mahathir Mohamad is in their camp. For Perikatan, it is the Malay MPs and the perception among the Malays that this government better represents them compared to the previous one,” said the source.

“It is on this basis, too, that Mahathir was made the chairman of PH, and named as prime minister,” the source added.

Widely-shared reports that some two-thirds of MPs in PH are non-Malays have posed a huge perception problem in a country where Malay politics holds sway.

Mahathir’s presence offers peace of mind for the Malay electorate, who view DAP and PKR as not minding their interests. However, he might not be in the mood, or have the energy, “to fight for a coalition that first pressed him to step down then called for his return when things went awry”, says an insider close to the camp of Mohamed Azmin Ali, the sacked PKR deputy president.

Who, then, is the loser?

“Mahathir, who is 94, had nothing to lose in this game. In fact, he was not dethroned, he left before that.”

Is it DAP?

“No, they were prepared to be damned from day one, and they still have Penang,” said one source.

Anwar Ibrahim has been gunning for the top post, but may now find it more elusive after a week of political crisis that toppled his coalition.

“The greatest loser is the person who has been sitting so long, and has twice come close to the throne,” the source added, possibly referring to Anwar Ibrahim, the PKR president.

Anwar had been Mahathir’s anointed successor when the pair led a Barisan Nasional government in the 1990s. He was again named the successor to Mahathir when the PH government took office in 2018.

The past seven days leading to Muhyiddin’s rise have seen PKR and DAP openly clashing with Mahathir after having buried the hatchet to form the PH coalition which brought down the Najib Razak government in 2018.

But Malay politicians have been left as a minority bloc in the now-fractured coalition, a sensitive matter that does no help to Anwar. “It has only made his prime ministerial ambitions more elusive than ever,” said the source.

But that did not stop Anwar and PH leaders from “meeting the old man again”, to quote one insider who has followed closely the goings-on at Mahathir’s private residence in Seri Kembangan.

“Anwar realises that in this game, it is important not to be on a warpath with Mahathir: Muhyiddin knows this too, but Muhyiddin appears to have done it with tact,” the source said.

Muhyiddin took a big chunk of PPBM members of Parliament with him when he broke with Pakatan Harapan, leaving Mahathir with a handful of loyalists.

The source said Muhyiddin had turned his back on allies many times before, but ”has always come out winning”.

It remains to be seen if Muhyiddin Yassin’s swearing-in can bring about some semblance of political stability. (Bernama pic)

“He did it with Pak Lah in 2008, when he helped Mahathir to pressure the PM to quit. He also did it under Najib, in his public spat with his boss during the 1MDB saga,” said the source, referring to the premiership of Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak.

Now Muhyiddin has to tread carefully, even though he has a clear Malay-majority coalition behind him.

He must ensure that Mahathir’s legacy, including Mahathir’s appointments, will not be undone by the new Perikatan Nasional coalition, and that Umno leaders facing corruption charges are not part of the new Cabinet.

“Ensuring these would allay Mahathir’s fears, the same fears that led him to make an about-turn by returning to Pakatan,” said the source.

Whether Muhyiddin will be able to boost his coalition’s numbers at the Dewan Rakyat sitting scheduled for next week remains to be seen.

Either way, many are convinced that Anwar’s prime ministerial ambitions are now “in tatters”, as one senior Umno official put it.

“He fought under different coalitions but the PM’s seat still remains elusive. Mahathir, on the other hand, is going to leave his mark as the man who became the prime minister twice — once as the longest-serving PM, once as the shortest,” said a source who has been a close friend of Anwar since his days in Umno.

“Over the past 20 months, Anwar’s ascension to the prime ministership has become more unlikely. What guarantee is there that he has a better chance now, after having pleaded for Mahathir’s return?” the source noted.