KUALA LUMPUR • Former premier Mahathir Mohamad was returned uncontested as Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman as nominations closed for party elections, its elections committee announced yesterday. Meanwhile, his son Mukhriz Mahathir is challenging Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for the presidency, signalling a prolonged battle for control of the party that was at the centre of the change of power a fortnight ago.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin, in seeking to retain his party presidency despite claiming during the political crisis late last month that he was acting chairman - the top post in Bersatu - avoided direct confrontation with Tun Dr Mahathir, whom he has publicly pleaded with to support his government.
But Datuk Seri Mukhriz, Kedah's chief minister, is seeking to climb up from the deputy presidency he now holds, setting the stage for an intense campaign until party members vote in June.
Bersatu was split in two after Dr Mahathir, 94, refused to go along with leaders who wanted him to abandon the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration and form a new coalition government with then opposition parties including Umno, which he left in 2016 citing endemic corruption.
After Dr Mahathir resigned as premier on Feb 24, Mr Muhyiddin was able to cobble together support to become Malaysia's new leader on March 1, despite five Bersatu MPs standing with Dr Mahathir.
"I am Dr Mahathir, Bersatu member No. 1 and founder of this party. I offer to stand as chairman to save Bersatu, as now, some of its leaders are working with kleptocrats and Umno to form a backdoor government. Join our struggle to return our party to the right path," Dr Mahathir said yesterday across his social media channels.
The popularity of Bersatu leaders among the rank-and-file has never been tested as this is the first internal election since the party was established in 2016.
Although 30 of Bersatu's 35 MPs are in the new Perikatan Nasional ruling pact, most are new additions who defected after the party won power as part of the four-member PH coalition. They include nine who left Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat on Feb 23 to join hands with the opposition.
Mr Muhyiddin is seeking to cement his position after Dr Mahathir claimed the support of 115 of Malaysia's 222 parliamentarians just hours before he was sworn in as premier.
But with PH stating it would seek a confidence vote in Parliament to prove the Prime Minister did not have the necessary simple majority, he delayed a sitting initially scheduled for last week to May 18, saying his new Cabinet would need time to prepare for the legislative session.
Several MPs who supported Dr Mahathir have recanted, and PH sources told The Straits Times their numbers are currently no greater than 108, fewer than the 112 needed for the simple majority.
Dr Mahathir has so far ignored attempts at rapprochement from Mr Muhyiddin who has sought reconciliation talks, saying he will instead watch the progress of corruption trials of Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak, who is embroiled in the 1MDB scandal.
But the elder statesman has admitted the opposition is unlikely to defeat the government in a confidence vote when Parliament reconvenes, as Mr Muhyiddin will be able to entice lawmakers to cross the aisle.