Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition is edging toward a breaking point as a widening schism over a planned prime ministerial succession threatens political stability at a delicate economic juncture.

A sharp factional divide is roiling the largest party in the coalition, pitting veteran political heavyweight and former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim against Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali in a tussle over who will next assume the nation’s premiership.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 94, has frequently reiterated his intention to step down after serving two to three years and accept Anwar, his one-time nemesis, as his successor. Mahathir was swept into power for the second time in May 2018 in a surprise election win against the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

Azmin and his supporters, however, have called for Mahathir to continue as prime minister for a full five-year term rather than making way for Anwar. According to Azmin, 55, the nonagenarian’s leadership is key to ensuring “stability, continuity and consistency” of government policies.

Mahathir himself promised to serve only as an interim prime minister, while Anwar has pledged to give him the space needed to lead the government, clean up corruption and set right an economy hobbled by sky-high public debt. While the economy has been generally stable under PH, growth is easing as frustration mounts over the slow pace of reform.

A review of so-called bumiputera affirmative action policies favoring ethnic Malays over other ethnic groups is among the key institutional reforms outlined by Anwar, which he says have been “abused to enrich cronies” and should instead be needs-based. Though PH’s economic policies have aimed at greater inclusion to reduce inequality, race-based policies remain firmly in place.

Azmin, by contrast, earlier this year called for an “unapologetic” pursuit of the bumiputera agenda. It is widely speculated that Mahathir prefers the younger economic affairs minister as his successor rather than 72-year-old Anwar, who as president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) party is the de facto leader of the ruling coalition.

Anwar Ibrahim (L) and Mohamed Azmin Ali (R) cross paths at a Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) function at Dataran Rantau, Negeri Sembilan. Photo: Twitter

Ahead of the party’s annual congress later this week, Anwar attempted to shrug off the widening divide, saying he expects three-fourths of PKR’s branch representatives to attend. He also denied specific discussions for a truce between the two camps and claimed the party is “united.” It remains to be seen whether the rift will affect proceedings.

A small group of leaders from the PKR’s youth wing proposed yesterday that a no-confidence vote be called against Anwar after the surprise sacking of four party leaders known to be in Azmin’s camp. Zakaria Abdul Hamid sat on the party’s central leadership committee but was axed on November 24 on corruption suspicions.

Zakaria, who is being investigated by the national anti-corruption agency, claims his expulsion was wrongful and done without an enquiry by the party’s disciplinary board. Twenty central committee members led by Azmin have objected to the sacking and demanded an apology from Anwar, which he has refused to give.

Addressing supporters last week, Anwar said that leaders in the party had forgotten their reform movement roots and are replicating the “bad habits” of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the BN’s once-dominant ruling party. “They no longer dare to say the word ‘reformasi’,” lamented Anwar, without directly mentioning Azmin’s name.

Speculation is rife that Azmin’s rival faction will officiate their own parallel party congress on December 5, the same day the official congress opens. Azmin was disinvited from jointly addressing the PKR’s women and youth wings during the convention, which the party’s deputy president is traditionally expected to do.

Further complicating matters, leaders from the party’s women and youth wings have reportedly lodged appeals of their own, inviting Azmin to launch their convention without the sanction of PKR’s central leadership.

The divide between the party’s rival camps is seen to have widened following a controversial meeting between Azmin and a group of UMNO politicians.

The PKR deputy president hosted a late-night meeting at his residence on November 18 attended by 22 opposition lawmakers. The gathering sent the rumor mill into overdrive, though those who attended have downplayed its significance, saying the agenda was merely to settle project allocations for their constituencies and gauge their support for Mahathir.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the Eastern Economic Forum at the Russian port of Vladivostok on September 5, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum/ Vladimir Smirnov

PH suffered a spectacular by-election defeat in the Tanjung Piai constituency two days earlier, setting off rumors that a vote of no confidence could be called against the premier. Azmin’s political secretary admitted that opposition members were asked whether they would support Mahathir if such a vote were to go ahead.

Click here to read an Asia Times’ report on Harapan’s bruising by-election loss.

Others believe the true purpose of the private meeting was for Azmin to seek the opposition’s help in blocking Anwar’s succession. “There are a lot of people out there who believe that Anwar would be a disaster for Malaysia for a host of reasons, [especially] in economic terms,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute.

As intra-party strife intensifies, Chin believes Azmin is mulling his options and recruiting parliamentarians for a breakaway group that could either establish itself as a new party or join Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) en bloc. Such a scenario would obviously be aimed at affecting the power transition, says the academic.

“The endgame is that [Azmin] wants to be a major player if there’s going to be a reconfiguration of the government. His position is weak in a sense now that the only person that can hold him up politically is Mahathir,” Chin told Asia Times. “The moment Mahathir goes, he has to be able to stand on two feet. He has to make sure that his bloc in PKR is solid.”

A ruling coalition source told Asia Times that party infighting will “finally [be] reaching a resolution soon” given that Anwar is believed to command the support of a large majority of PKR’s parliamentarians. Some think Anwar will use the upcoming party congress to squash Azmin’s faction and reassert control over the party he founded.

“Azmin’s bungling of the secret meeting [with opposition lawmakers] has put him on the back foot,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Many are now saying he didn’t even have the blessings of Mahathir in the first place to pursue this, and that he went rogue just to prove to Mahathir he is still worth something.”

Analysts believe Mahathir’s extended premiership is key to Azmin’s own political survival. The PKR deputy president is believed to be receiving help from across the aisle from UMNO stalwart Hishammuddin Hussein, who has previously dismissed claims by Anwar’s allies that he is plotting to stop his succession.

“The rumor is that Azim’s agent in UMNO, the guy who goes around collecting numbers and putting everything together, is Hishammuddin,” said Chin. “These two have always maintained very close relations, although they’re in different political parties. If Azmin makes a move, Hisham’s job is to round up the UMNO people and move together.”

UMNO stalwart Hishammuddin Hussein in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Hishammuddin, a former UMNO vice president and senior minister under the previous Najib Razak administration, denies claims that he had attempted to enlist more than two dozen opposition lawmakers to voice their support for Mahathir. UMNO’s disciplinary board has said that it will launch an investigation into the meeting at Azmin’s residence.

A separate source from a ruling coalition party told Asia Times that Azmin finds himself “embattled” and that it is still unclear whether he has succeeded in obtaining Mahathir’s support to succeed him. “Thus far it’s hard to tell but Tun (Mahathir) is observing the political maneuvering between Azmin and Hisham. Numbers matter,” the source said.

According to Chin, one of the few analysts to accurately forecast the outcome of Malaysia’s 2018 general election, Mahathir is reluctant to step down because he views himself as the singular figure able to hold the coalition together. “I think he also has a personal interest in that he wants to build a jalan, a political road for [his] son,” Chin said.

Mukhriz Mahathir, the prime minister’s son, raised eyebrows when he denied that there was a succession timeline for the country’s leadership during an interview in July. The 55-year-old politician also stated that Anwar’s position as prime minister-in-waiting is not in dispute and that he himself does not harbor personal ambitions to lead the nation.

Observers trace PKR’s internal strife to last year’s divisive race for the deputy presidency, which pit Azmin against Rafizi Ramli, one of the party’s appointed vice-presidents and an Anwar loyalist. Azmin won the bruising contest, which saw both candidates accuse the other of cheating, by a slim margin.

PH’s colossal defeat in last month’s Tanjung Piai by-election has meanwhile prompted finger-pointing and calls for the leadership transition to be hastened. Sources from the ruling coalition say that unease with Mahathir’s leadership is building but is “mostly confined to Anwar’s faction” and not shared openly by other component parties.

Mahathir has since indicated that a Cabinet reshuffle could soon be on the cards, which some have perceived as a sign that the premier is not likely to step down in 2020. Anwar currently holds no position in the Cabinet and recently said he has no intention of accepting one in the event of a reshuffle.

“We need to give space to Dr Mahathir so that the process can take place peacefully. If it happens smoothly, it will be easier for Dr Mahathir to continue with his work and easier for me after the handover,” Anwar said in a press conference last week. “The [coalition] leadership will ascertain when the transition will take place.”