Hindsight 2020: The twists, turns of Malaysian politics (and THAT 'Move')


Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad leaves Prime Minister’s Office at 5.45pm MOHD SAHAR MISNI/ The Star

In Hindsight 2020, we look at how Covid-19 has rendered this a dystopian year.

The Malaysian political scene has been quite active for a few years now, with never a moment’s rest since the 14th General Election (GE14) in May, 2018.

In 2020, it went into overdrive. There was a change of hands in Putrajaya, changes in state governments, three by-elections held during a global pandemic, and another three by-elections put on hold by a state of emergency because of said pandemic.

The Kimanis by-election was held in January while the Chini and Slim by-elections were held in August – all won by candidates for a seemingly resurgent Barisan Nasional.

Politicking was resurgent too: the year began with PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim continuing to push then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to hand over the reins as promised in the Pakatan Harapan pre-election agreement in 2018.

Dr Mahathir, at the time also the chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, refused to step aside for Anwar, saying that it was not time yet, while also eyeing the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) that Malaysia was scheduled to host towards the end of the year.

That only intensified backdoor manoeuvres. In January, there were persistent rumours of a secret collaboration led by then PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali to ensure Anwar never became prime minister.

Anwar and Azmin had had a major fallout after Anwar’s supporters were alleged to have circulated purported porn videos of Azmin.

MPs from all parties were courted left and right to sign their support either for Dr Mahathir or Anwar as the ninth prime minister, or PM9... some cheekily signed both, going by the numbers both factions claimed to have had.

On Feb 21, the Pakatan presidential council held “showdown” between Dr Mahathir’s team and Anwar’s supporters.

At a press conference after this meeting, Dr Mahathir said the council had unanimously agreed to leave the time frame for the power transition to him, reiterating that his stepping down will only happen after the Apec summit in November.

On Feb 23, dubbed the “longest Sunday in Malaysian politics”, Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced the party’s exit from the Pakatan coalition.

Sheraton and beyond

Malaysia was now officially in political turmoil as the PM’s party was no longer part of the coalition that had won GE14.

That night, at a mass dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya hailed as the “Sheraton Move”, 131 MPs from Pakatan and the Opposition – Barisan, PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) – sat down to eat and declare their support for Dr Mahathir to complete his premiership term.

However, as dawn broke the next morning, the country was taken by surprise when Dr Mahathir resigned as PM, leading to the collapse of the 22 month-old Pakatan government.

In an emotional outburst, he claimed he had never wanted to renege on his promise to Anwar and had refused to work with alleged kleptocrats such as his prime ministerial predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak to form a new government.

That very afternoon, however, the King appointed Dr Mahathir as the interim PM. Any hope that there would be clarity after the dust had settled was quickly dispelled when, on that same day, Azmin and PKR vice-president Zuraida Kamaruddin were sacked from the party, labelled as “traitors”.

Eight PKR MPs declared their solidarity with the duo, and the 10 would all later join Bersatu.

On Feb 26, in his first public address as interim PM, Dr Mahathir asked to be given the opportunity to form and lead a non-partisan government, a “unity government”.

The next day, flanked by top civil servants, he also announced a RM20bil financial stimulus package to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.

That didn’t happen. On Feb 29, the King announced that after interviewing all 221 MPs to gauge their support, Muhyiddin would be PM9.

Anwar and Pakatan then decided to switch their game plan and declare their support for Dr Mahathir as premier.

Ultimately, the numbers just didn’t add up for either Dr Mahathir or Anwar. Both blamed Muhyiddin for having been scheming to become PM all along.

To no avail – on March 1, Muhyiddin (pic) was sworn in as the ninth PM and the Perikatan Nasional government (comprising Bersatu, Barisan, PAS and GPS) was born and moved into Putrajaya.

This created domino effects in state governments with big Barisan representation.

Over the next few months, while Pakatan managed to retain Selangor, Penang and Negri Sembilan, and while Warisan held on to Sabah, the state governments in Johor, Melaka, Kedah and Perak saw their mentris besar change.

Umno appointed its state reps in Johor and Melaka soon after the so-called Sheraton Move.

Kedah fell to PAS and Dr Mahathir’s son Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir was ousted as the state’s MB for the second time in his career.

As for Perak, Perikatan reinstated Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu of Bersatu, only for him to be voted out months later on Dec 4. Umno’s Datuk Saarani Mohamad was appointed in his place.

On the Dewan Rakyat front, as soon as Muhyiddin was sworn in, the March 4 parliament sitting was suspended until the Cabinet was formed.

Politics amid a pandemic

On March 16, as Covid-19 cases started rising dangerously, Muhyiddin announced a complete nationwide lockdown.

The Federal Opposition was now composed of Pakatan’s PKR, DAP and Amanah, and its friendly ally Parti Warisan Sabah helmed by Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal.

Five Bersatu MPs, including Dr Mahathir, claimed they did not support Perikatan despite their party being part of the Perikatan alliance.

On May 18, with Covid-19 restrictions in place, a historic one-day Parliament sitting took place, but the then Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said only the King’s speech would be on the agenda.

Thus, a plan to vote Muhyiddin out via a no-confidence motion was thwarted.

Dr Mahathir and the Bersatu MPs supporting him made their stand visibly known: They sat with the Opposition in the august House on May 18, and were thus booted out of the party, which now considered them part of the Opposition.

Meanwhile, as the movement control order (MCO) to flatten the Covid-19 curve was eased up, with partial openings allowed, the Opposition kept holding on to the hope of staging a vote of no-confidence card repeatedly throughout the year, but this never materialised.

The second Parliament session began on July 13 with the main highlight being the appointment of former Election Commission chief Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun on July 29 as the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. This caused a ruckus in Parliament.

As things calmed down inside the august House, Dr Mahathir attempted to regain his post with the help of his Pakatan allies, but pro-Anwar leaders in Pakatan said that they would not endorse Dr Mahathir's bid for a third term as premier.

Dr Mahathir, in turn, refused to lend support to Anwar's candidacy. Instead, he nominated the Sabah Chief Minister, Shafie of Warisan, for the PM's post.

Despite the support of allies DAP and Amanah for this compromise, PKR insisted on Anwar being the coalition candidate.

Meanwhile, other battles were brewing in the same war. On July 29, former Sabah chief minister Tun Musa Aman claimed he had the majority to oust Shafie, who responded by asking for the state assembly to be dissolved the very next day.

The Sabah situation would be a key moment in the year, but in the meantime, in late August, Dr Mahathir set up a new party called Parti Pejuang Tanah Air. A splinter group from Pejuang led by former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman set up the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), a youth-oriented party.

Till today, as 2020 draws to a close, neither Pejuang not Muda have got the stamp of approval from the Registrar of Societies.

On Sept 13, Perikatan and Barisan formed the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) with a few Sabah parties to take on Warisan Plus, which was being led by Shafie into the state polls.

The numbers game

However, just days before Sabahans cast their ballots, on Sept 23, Anwar (pic) announced he had a “strong, formidable and convincing” majority for his appointment as PM, despite a rescheduled appointment with the King on the day before. The King at that time was hospitalised for food poisoning.

Life went on, however: on Sept 26, the Sabah state elections took place under strict SOPs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and GRS won. Sabah Bersatu chief Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor was appointed the Chief Minister.

But with many people from the peninsula heading over to Sabah for the election campaign, then heading home again, the state elections led to a third wave of Covid-19 infections across the seas.

In the last week of October, the Perikatan government pushed for a state of emergency to forestall any talk of a general election to solve the country’s political woes. However, the King, after consulting with the Malay Rulers, decided there was no need for a state of emergency.

On Oct 13, Anwar presented his list of “120 MPs” he claimed were supporting him, but the Palace said Anwar had not submitted any names, merely numbers, of these alleged MPs.

The King referred Anwar to the Federal Constitution.

It was later leaked that Najib and Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Maszlee Malik – who had been Bersatu’s education minister in the Pakatan administration – had presented MPs’ statutory declarations (SDs) to the Palace purportedly supporting Anwar.

Battle of the Budget

It was far from over. The Opposition then trained its guns on Budget 2021, an expansionary federal budget and one of the largest in the country’s history at a whopping RM322.54bil.

Certain Opposition MPs threatened to see that the Budget would fail by voting “nay”. Given the dire straits the economy was in, the King stepped in to say that Budget 2021 must be passed and that all politicking must be stopped for the sake of the people.

Budget 2021 was unveiled on Nov 6. It was passed at the policy stage after on Nov 26. Anwar, as the Opposition leader, did not stand up to say “nay”, and thus the attempt at a bloc vote to defeat the federal budget failed.

The cracks, already showing, deepened. A number of opposition MPs called for his removal as the opposition chief.

On Dec 14, in a last minute attempt to defeat Budget 2021, the two most senior MPs and long-time rivals Dr Mahathir and Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah held a joint press conference declaring their support for a unity government – all of which came to naught.

However, on Dec 15, the budget was passed narrowly with a 111-108 vote in bloc voting with one absentee.

The deal was done, but as we head into 2021, it’s obvious that the war will rage on for a while yet.

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Hindsight 2020 , Malaysian politics

   

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