KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's interim prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on Saturday (Feb 29) looks set to return as premier, for the third time, as he inches closer to gaining the minimum 112 lawmakers support needed to form government.
Following a dramatic turn of events, Tun Mahathir has thrown in his hat into the ring again, becoming the Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidate for prime minister.
The political twist, announced on Saturday (Feb 29) morning, scuppered plans of a Malay-centric government led by Muhyiddin Yassin, president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin had joined hands with Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and had less than 24 hours ago, appeared certain to clinch victory as Bersatu threw its support by naming him as their PM candidate.
By Saturday morning (Feb 29), Dr Mahathir has garnered 107 lawmakers on his side as lawmakers from Malaysia's Borneo states began to switch alliances. But the 94-year-old was already confident of achieving the golden figure of 112.
"This morning I had a meeting with leaders of Pakatan Harapan. I am now confident that I have the numbers needed to garner majority support in the Dewan Rakyat," he said in a statement, referring to Malaysia's Lower House which has 222 seats.
The PH coalition issued a statement as well declaring its support for Dr Mahathir as prime minister candidate.
"Pakatan is against any attempt at a backdoor government, especially those involving kleptocrats and traitors to the cause, which will destroy all efforts at reformation that has been carried out until now.
"Thus, to carry on with our fight, Pakatan has expressed full support behind Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as candidate for Prime Minister.
"Pakatan holds true to the principle and will continue to fight for our manifesto in Government."
Mr Anwar Ibrahim, representing PH, handed in a letter of support to the Malaysian King nominating Dr Mahathir as the pact’s choice for premiership. Datuk Seri Anwar, president of one of the three PH parties, had been named as the PM candidate by PH on Thursday.
Posting on Twitter, Mr Anwar said: “I am touched by the support given to me, however I have chosen to prioritise national interest over personal ones”.
PH on Saturday has 93 lawmakers from three parties - Mr Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara.
Dr Mahathir, along with his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, and and Johor lawmaker Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman would make up the three MPs partnering PH.
A lawmaker from Sarawak, Richard Riot, announced that he has joined PKR while another lawmaker, Jeffrey Kitingan - from Sabah - has pledged support for Dr Mahathir as PM. Earlier that morning, Mr Kitingan was seen at Mr Muhyiddin's home.
Parti Warisan Sabah, with 9 MPs, have also confirmed their support for Dr Mahathir.
Bersatu lawmaker and Dr Mahathir loyalist, Syed Saddiq tweeted a video statement on Saturday morning as well. “I will never work together with the corrupt… This isn’t about party or majority but about identity and integrity. My stand may not be accepted by certain politicians but politicians come and go, Malaysians are the true owners of this country,” the MP said.
Dr Mahathir also denied reports that he had supported Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin's candidacy on Friday.
"As I had repeatedly stated, I am against any form of cooperation with individuals who are known to be corrupt and was part of the kleptocratic administration which the Pakatan Harapan Government had worked hard to rid off.
"As a matter of principle I had conveyed this to the Bersatu Members of Parliament in the meeting yesterday.
"I did not sign any Statutory Declaration in support of any individual."
Dr Mahathir remains a member of Bersatu, The party exited PH alliance on Monday and named its president Muhyiddin as its prime minister candidate of choice on Friday.
With the departure of Bersatu’s 26 lawmakers from the coalition and the exit of 10 lawmakers from PKR - led by former PKR deputy president Azmin Ali - the PH government collapsed without a 112 MPs majority.
On Monday itself, Dr Mahathir resigned as prime minister but was made interim PM while lawmakers decide among themselves who can command the widest support to form government.
The past week has seen multiple u-turns, with nearly all political parties with representatives in Parliament backing Dr Mahathir as PM on Monday. However, that support immediately fell apart after the 94-year-old pushed for a nonpartisan government, a move that was balked by parties from both sides.
Umno and PAS retracted their support and began calling for snap polls, while PH came out to back PKR president Anwar as PM candidate. By midweek, neither side could win the numbers game.
By Friday, new allegiances appear as foes began to join hands. Starting with Bersatu stating its support for party president Muhyiddin Yassin as PM candidate. The Bersatu meeting was attended by the party’s MPs and the 10 quitters from PKR.
Umno and PAS soon backtracked on their wish to hold elections, and throw their bets on naming Tan Sri Muhyiddin as their PM candidate as well. The Malay-centric partnership was gaining ground with expectations that Borneo parties in Sabah and Sarawak that had previously supported Dr Mahathir would now join hands with Mr Muhyiddin as well.
However, Saturday’s statement by Dr Mahathir and PH has given the Malay pact a major setback. PH and Dr Mahathir still do not have the 112 needed, but if Parti Warisan Sabah comes along with its 9 MPs and several from Bersatu follows Dr Mahathir - Malaysia may just come back with a PH government after all.
As the political tide shifts in favour of Dr Mahathir working with PH again, electoral reforms watchdog Bersih 2.0 voiced support for a "reconfigured PH government". On Saturday, the NGO said between the two choices of Dr Mahathir and Mr Muhyiddin as premier, it would opt for the former on conditions that the PH election manifesto be kept, for clarity on power transition, and for reforms in the political system.
"The political turbulence since February 23 is due to ambiguity in PH’s transition plan and its recurrence must be avoided with a clear transition plan," the NGO said in a statement.
Proposing that Dr Mahathir stick to his promise of stepping down after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) ends in November, the group suggests that it should be done within two weeks after Apec concludes. Malaysia is host this year.
"To minimise uncertainty, his successor should be made the Deputy Prime Minister, and the person should be Anwar Ibrahim, the 8th Prime Minister promised by PH in GE14, or any other candidate agreed by PH’s presidential council," it added.
On Saturday, DAP Sarawak offered an olive branch to Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). In a statement, the state party chief Chong Chien Jen said it was willing "to make concession and work together" to "help preserve" the PH government and "prevent extremists from seizing power". PH has federal MPs in Sarawak, and is the main opposition in the state assembly - with the majority of the lawmakers from the DAP.
With Dr Mahathir back in the running, it is unclear who Bersatu will back. On Saturday morning, it uploaded and then promptly deleted a statement backing Dr Mahathir.
Meanwhile at the palace, politicians supporting Mr Muhyiddin - from Bersatu, Umno and PAS - were seen arriving on Saturday morning to seek an audience with the King. But 30 minutes later, the convoy of politicians left, with PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan saying the group will return to the palace on Sunday, according to Malaysiakini.
Before the politicians headed for the palace, a gathering was held Mr Muhyiddin’s home, consisting of leaders from Umno, PAS and Sarawak’s Fadillah Yusof - a leader from GPS.
In an odd irony, Bersatu - which means unity in Malay - was clearly divided. Mr Muhyiddin issued a statement at noon declaring that with Dr Mahathir's resignation as Bersatu chairman submitted on Monday, the former would be acting party chairman for the time being. This is despite the party's statement on Wednesday and Thursday that party council rejected Dr Mahathir's resignation.
Mr Muhyiddin's press secretary told The Straits Times that the resignation was processed despite the council's decision to reject Dr Mahathir quitting as chairman.
But less than an hour later, the party eventually posted a statement backing Dr Mahathir as chairman.
"In line with the 'rule of law' principle and the party's constitution, the one individual with absolute power to lead the party is Bersatu chairman that is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad".