PETALING JAYA • The plan to form Perikatan Nasional (PN), a coalition of mainly Malay parties from both sides of the aisle, originated from then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before the collapse in February of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government that he helmed, said Malaysia's Senior Minister for Economy Azmin Ali.
In an exclusive interview with The Star published yesterday, Datuk Seri Azmin, who is also Minister of International Trade and Industry, revealed that Tun Dr Mahathir was meant to remain as prime minister with the new coalition, which was to include Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia as well as then opposition parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
The plan was hatched without the explicit approval of Bersatu's allies in PH, namely Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Negara.
Mr Azmin said that support for Dr Mahathir was presented to the palace on Feb 23, in the form of 131 statutory declarations from lawmakers of various parties. A simple majority of 112 MPs is needed to form the government.
"We were then trying very hard to make sure that Dr Mahathir would continue to serve as the prime minister," Mr Azmin said.
"That was the meeting we had at his house on Feb 23 at 4pm when he met all the six political party leaders, including Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Muhyiddin Yassin, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Parti Warisan Sabah president Mohd Shafie Apdal, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, Gabungan Parti Sarawak head Abang Johari and myself."
Mr Azmin was then deputy president of PKR.
Dr Mahathir, however, unexpectedly resigned as prime minister on Feb 24. The PH government subsequently collapsed when dozens of MPs from Bersatu and PKR, led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin and Mr Azmin, left and later formed PN.
Mr Muhyiddin was appointed prime minister on March 1, and now leads the PN administration with a slim majority in Parliament.
At the time, PN was criticised for forming a "backdoor government" with parties that were rejected by voters at the ballot box. PH had defeated Umno and its allies at the historic May 2018 general election, ending their six-decade rule.
In the interview, Mr Azmin defended PN's actions.
"Perikatan is not a backdoor government as there was a vacancy (for the post of prime minister). I did not suggest at that time - if it (resignation of Dr Mahathir) did not happen then - that we knock on the door and take him out and we go in," said Mr Azmin. "That was not the plan or case."
Dr Mahathir has said that he resigned because he could not face the prospect of working with Umno. Political observers have speculated that the plan to form a new government, termed a "unity" government by Dr Mahathir, was intended to foil Mr Anwar's ascension to the prime minister post as agreed to by PH before the 2018 election.
Yesterday, Dr Mahathir's new party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, denied Mr Azmin's claims and said Dr Mahathir had no part in the plan to form PN.
Pejuang information chief Ulya Aqamah Husamudin instead claimed that PN was a plot by Mr Azmin and Mr Muhyiddin to overthrow the PH government.
"Dr Mahathir did not want to break his promise (to allow Mr Anwar to succeed him) and accept support from kleptocrats," said Mr Ulya, referring to Umno leaders who have been charged with graft.
Mr Azmin said he and Mr Muhyiddin had no choice but to leave PH after Dr Mahathir resigned.
"We were thrown into a political crisis when the sitting prime minister, Dr Mahathir, resigned. If Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin didn't act within that small window, someone else could have rushed to the palace and pressured the palace in order to become the prime minister. I would not have allowed that to happen. The only option for me and Muhyiddin then was to leave Pakatan," he said.
According to him, Dr Mahathir could not garner sufficient support to form a new government.
"If you don't have the numbers, there is nothing much we can do. As there was no Parliament sitting then, under the federal Constitution, the King had to decide who had the support of the majority to be PM," Mr Azmin said.
"Finally, Muhyiddin got that majority. Of course, we came in as a new government, not through an election but through a political crisis. But that crisis came about because this man tendered his resignation. If Dr Mahathir had not tendered his resignation that Monday, he would still be prime minister with a bigger majority."
Asked if he still has any ties with Dr Mahathir, who in 1987 gave Mr Azmin his first job in politics as special officer to Mr Anwar, Mr Azmin said he regarded him as a father.
"I still have so much respect, love and affection for Dr Mahathir. He is our statesman," he said.
His relationship with Mr Anwar, however, has faltered. Mr Azmin said he was not to blame for the state of affairs.
"I have served him for 30 years - officially for 15 years when (he) held the posts of education and finance minister and DPM (deputy prime minister). I also took care of his family when he was in prison. I thought after he was released from prison, he would come out a better person. Unfortunately, he became a bitter person - not only for me but for the whole nation."
There has been much speculation in Malaysia over whether PN will call a snap election and seek a stronger mandate to govern. Mr Azmin said an election could have been held last month, were it not for the coronavirus outbreak.
"If you ask me, of course, we are ready to go back to the rakyat (people) to get the mandate. If you ask me when we should have gotten the mandate, I would say it should have been last month but, unfortunately, we are facing the Covid-19 pandemic," he said.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK