BY PHLIP RODRIGUES – Malaysia came close to a perilous crisis when Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned from his post and the country was suddenly left rudderless. The wily politician played his game masterfully: by bowing out he knew there would be no one to replace him easily.
The game of politics is dirty and the old doctor is well adept at it. Faced with intense pressure to pass the hat to PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, he chose the only effective course left open – quit and see his supporters come running to him in double quick time.
By quitting the stage, Mahathir has in reality fulfilled the pledge to give up his seat but not to Anwar. The near-centenarian fox knows that Anwar does not enjoy the undivided support of all the Pakatan Harapan partners to step into the vacated shoes. Neither is there a suitable and able candidate to step forth to take the crown jewel in Putrajaya.
So this very old man is back in power but only as an interim prime minister. He can now sit back and observe the scene below him: Anwar and all the others, including the opposition, will be scrambling to put their acts together to make another bid for the coveted prize in Putrajaya in the months ahead.
But all this drama which had caused so much suspense and anxiety could have been avoided if Anwar is seen as supremely fit of becoming the next prime minister.
Pakatan Harapan would have unquestionably fixed a date in May for the transition of power. It would be another historic moment in the annals of Malaysian politics
But Pakatan Harapan did not rush to announce the highly anticipated date when its presidential council met on Feb 21. Instead, the members of the fragile coalition left it to Mahathir to decide when he would hand over the baton to Anwar.
The country breathed a sigh of relief over this political development and was about to relax when the doctor dropped a bombshell: he has submitted his letter of resignation to Istana Negara. By this single stroke, the question of succession has somewhat faded into the background.
With Mahathir in charge again, a whole new ball game has started. As an interim leader, his position cannot be regarded as strong. In fact, whatever policies the interim government decides will not carry much weight.
But the show must go on and Mahathir must make the best of this unpleasant situation. He will be walking on a tight rope as he tries to balance the competing demands and interests of the various political factions in Pakatan Harapan, that is, if the coalition is still alive.
Yet the question of succession cannot be ignored. If Mahathir still has the final say on the matter and still stick to his pledge to give up his reins to Anwar, then between now and November, there can be some semblance of stability. But anything can happen for better or worse.
While waiting in the wings, Anwar might lose his patience and call out his supporters to the streets in a replay of the “reformasi” movement of long ago. Or he might go on a whirlwind tour of the country to take his case directly to the people.
Either way the “reformasi” man would find the going tough. Mahathir would not take the challenge lying down; he would just crack down on the demonstrators using whatever powers he can muster in the present altered, fluid circumstances.
The events of the last few days showed clearly how tenuous is Pakatan Harapan’s hold on the central government. Because of the internal bickering and personality clashes, the coalition built on so much hope and trust is now in danger of becoming a footnote in history.
For now the storm may have subsided, but for one brief moment, Malaysia was plunged once again into suspense and panic as it awaited with bated breath the outcome of the senseless tussle for power. Indeed, “politics is almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous.”
PHLIP RODRIGUES is a retired journalist.
*The opinions expressed above are those of the writer or publication and do not necessarily represent the opinions of New Malaysia Times.