Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was seeking another return to the premier’s seat, has now thrown his support behind Parti Warisan Sabah leader Shafie Apdal as the opposition’s prime minister-designate in the event of snap polls.
This decision comes after a week-long impasse within the loose coalition of opposition parties that saw them split between supporting Tun Dr Mahathir and his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim as the prime ministerial candidate.
Dr Mahathir declared he was backing Datuk Seri Shafie, chief minister of the Borneo state of Sabah, in a statement issued yesterday.
He said the decision to back Mr Shafie was made collectively by Warisan, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara leaders during an informal meeting on Thursday, minus the agreement of Datuk Seri Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
“We agreed unanimously to nominate Shafie Apdal as the prime minister candidate,” Dr Mahathir said, adding that he was open to taking himself out of the running for a prime ministerial nomination.
He said the leaders at the meeting proposed that Mr Anwar serve as one of two deputy prime ministers under Mr Shafie, with Dr Mahathir’s son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, serving as the other one.
“I hope this can be accepted by the people as proof that those in the opposition are not after power or money,” he said.
The opposition coalition, dubbed Pakatan Harapan Plus, has seen relations within its ranks strained after Mr Anwar’s PKR refused to back a proposal to have Dr Mahathir return as prime minister for six months, should they capture federal power.
Dr Mahathir, in return, had threatened to cut ties with PKR and work only with Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) two other parties, the DAP and Amanah. Both DAP and Amanah had backed Dr Mahathir’s bid to return as the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate, but said in a joint statement yesterday that Mr Shafie’s candidacy must first be discussed by their central party leaderships.
PKR had been insistent on having Mr Anwar as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, and the question of whether Dr Mahathir removing himself from the equation would change the party’s stance remains.
Leaders from Mr Shafie’s Warisan party had revelled in the prospect of a candidate from Sabah and Sarawak becoming prime minister of Malaysia for the first time.
“The aspiration to see a Sabahan (or Sarawakian) lead Malaysia as a prime minister one day is not impossible,” the party’s vice-president Junz Wong posted on his Facebook page yesterday.
“We are not second-class. We are of equal standing (with Peninsular Malaysia),” said Mr Wong, who is also a member of the Sabah state administration.
The topic of prime minister-designate has always been a thorn for the PH. Dr Mahathir was named its prime ministerial candidate prior to Malaysia’s 2018 General Election following a promise of a mid-term transition of power to Mr Anwar, who was in prison at the time and unable to contest in the election.
Following his release and subsequent re-election to the federal legislature, his supporters had kept calling for Dr Mahathir to expedite the power transition.
This led to growing turmoil within the pact, leading to Dr Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister in February, scuppering any planned transition to Mr Anwar.
Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia colleague Muhyiddin Yassin then led the departure of over 40 members of Parliament from PH – subsequently forming a government with Parti Islam SeMalaysia, former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional and Sarawak’s Gabungan Parti Sarawak.
But Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s administration remains on shaky ground, as it has only a three-seat majority in the Parliament.
His majority is expected to be tested for the first time during a scheduled Parliament session next month. But with growing calls for a snap election to be held instead, this test may never happen.