KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was seeking a return to the premier's seat for a third time, has now thrown his support behind Parti Warisan Sabah leader Shafie Apdal as the opposition's Prime Minister-designate in the event of snap polls.
This decision comes after a week-long impasse within the loose coalition of opposition parties that saw them split between supporting Dr Mahathir or his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim as the PM candidate.
Tun Dr Mahathir declared he was backing Mr Shafie, the current Chief Minister of the Borneo state of Sabah, in a statement issued on Saturday (June 27).
Dr Mahathir claimed that the decision to back Mr Shafie was made collectively by Warisan, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara leaders during an informal meeting on Thursday, minus the agreement of Datuk Seri Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
"We agreed unanimously to nominate Shafie Apdal as the prime minister candidate," Dr Mahathir said, adding that he was open to taking himself out of running for a prime ministerial nomination.
Dr Mahathir said the leaders at the meeting proposed that Mr Anwar serve as one of two deputy prime ministers under Mr Shafie, with Dr Mahathir’s son Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir serving as the second deputy prime minister.
"I hope this can be accepted by the people as proof that those in the opposition are not after power or money," he said.
The opposition coalition, dubbed Pakatan Harapan Plus, has seen relations within its ranks strained after Mr Anwar's PKR refused to back a proposal to have Dr Mahathir return as Prime Minister for six months, should they capture federal power.
Dr Mahathir, in return, had threatened to cut ties with PKR and work only with Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) two other parties, DAP and Amanah.
Both DAP and Amanah had backed Dr Mahathir’s bid to return as the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate, but said in a joint statement on Saturday Mr Shafie’s candidacy must first be discussed by their central party leaderships.
PKR had been insistent on having Mr Anwar as the opposition's Prime Minister candidate and the question whether Dr Mahathir removing himself from the equation would change their stance remains.
Leaders from Mr Shafie's Warisan party had reveled in the prospect of a candidate from the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak becoming Prime Minister of Malaysia for the first time.
"The aspiration to see a Sabahan (or Sarawakian) lead Malaysia as a Prime Minister one day is not impossible," the party's vice president Junz Wong posted on his Facebook page yesterday.
"We are not second class. We are of equal standing (with Peninsula)," said Mr Wong, who is also a member of the Sabah state administration.
Mr Shafie's party deputy Darell Leiking also echoed the calls for an East Malaysian Prime Minister.
"Anyone acceptable to the Federation and coming from Borneo can equally lead the federation as PM. Why not, right?" Mr Leiking, a former federal cabinet member under Dr Mahathir's administration, said on his Facebook page.
The topic of Prime Minister-designate had always been a thorn for PH.
Dr Mahathir was named its Prime Minister candidate prior to the 2018 general elections following a promise of a mid-term transition of power towards Mr Anwar, who was imprisoned at the time and was unable to contest the elections.
Following Mr Anwar's release and subsequent re-election to federal legislature, his supporters had kept calling for Dr Mahathir to expedite the power transition.
This led to growing turmoil within the pact, leading to Dr Mahathir's resignation as Prime Minister in February this year, scuppering any planned transition towards Mr Anwar.
Dr Mahathir's Bersatu colleague Muhyiddin Yassin then led the departure of over 40 members of Parliament from PH - subsequently forming a government with PAS, the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional and Sarawak's Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).
However, Tan Sri Muhyiddin's administration remains in shaky ground, as it only has a three-seat majority in the Parliament.
His majority is expected to be tested for the first time during a scheduled Parliament meet in July. However, with growing calls for a snap election to be held instead, this test may never happen.