Malaysia's political turmoil: everything you need to know

Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation sets rival parties against each other and could result in a snap election

What is happening in Malaysia?

The country’s ruling alliance collapsed on Monday after the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, the world’s oldest leader, shocked the nation by announcing that he would be stepping down. The king accepted his resignation but asked for him to stay on as interim leader. The country is now in limbo as rival parties rush to strike deals and form a government.

Why did Mahathir resign?

Mahathir did not give a reason for his resignation. There were long-standing tensions within the ruling alliance, which involved an unlikely partnership between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim. The two politicians have a decades-long feud, but united ahead of the 2018 elections to oust the government of Najib Razak, which was entangled in the 1MDB graft saga - often referred to as the world’s biggest financial fraud. As part of the deal, Mahathir promised that he would hand his job over to Anwar. He has refused to set a date for doing so.

Rivalries between the two politician’s factions came to a head on Sunday, when Mahathir’s supporters reportedly met with the opposition party implicated in the 1MDB scandal to discuss forming a new government.

Anwar said on Monday that Mahathir had spoken to him and had been “very clear that in no way will he ever work with those associated with the past regime” and that he quit over allegations that he would partner with the previous regime.

Is this the end of Mahathir?

Not necessarily. Despite resigning from his position, analysts say Mahathir is now in a stronger position than he was in 2018. Parties on both sides, including his supporters who have quit the ruling alliance, still appear to support him. It’s not clear if he actually intends to stand down.

What is likely to happen this week?

Politicians now have a short window in which to form a government, and rival camps are rushing to strike deals. To form a government, a coalition must have a minimum of 112 out of the 222 members of parliament.

Mahathir could form a government with parties who remain in the ruling coalition, backed up by new support from elsewhere. Or he could follow his traditional supporters who have abandoned the ruling alliance, and team up with those he removed from power in 2018.

He could also step back from the turmoil, and make way for a race between Anwar and figures from his own party, Bersatu.

If no side is able to gain enough numbers, the king may call for a snap election.

Why do Mahathir and Anwar have such a turbulent relationship?

Mahathir and Anwar once worked together in the same party, with Anwar serving as deputy prime minister and finance minister under Mahathir, when he was prime minister for 22 years. But the pair clashed over issues relating to the economy, and Anwar was sacked in 1998. He went on to lead protests against Mahathir, and was later jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy that many said were politically motivated and an attempt by Mahathir to remove Anwar as a potential threat.

He has since been jailed twice on widely-criticised sodomy charges. But, when, in a surprising turnaround, Mahatir teamed up with Anwar before the 2018 election, he promised to release him from prison. In May 2018, Anwar walked free following a royal pardon.


Rebecca Ratcliffe South-East Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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