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How the Pandemic Is Keeping Malaysia’s Politics Messy

Mahathir Mohamad
Mahathir MohamadPhotographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg
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Malaysia’s first transfer of power in six decades was hailed as a milestone for transparency, free speech and racial tolerance in the multiethnic Southeast Asian country. But the new coalition collapsed amid an all-too-familiar mix of political intrigue and horse trading. Elements of the old regime were brought into a new government that also proved short-lived, leading to a third prime minister in just 18 months and the return of the United Malays National Organisation to the country’s top post. The turmoil stems in part from an entrenched system of affirmative-action policies that critics say fosters cronyism and identity-based politics, while a worsening coronavirus pandemic has hampered plans for fresh elections.

Two veteran politicians, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, won a surprising election victory in 2018 that ousted then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was enmeshed in a massive money-laundering scandal linked to the state investment firm 1MDB. Mahathir, 96, became prime minister again (he had held the post from 1981 to 2003), with the understanding that he would hand over to Anwar at some point. Delays in setting a date and policy disputes led to tensions that boiled over in 2020. Mahathir stepped down and sought to strengthen his hand by forming a unity government outside party politics. But the king pre-empted his efforts by naming Mahathir’s erstwhile right-hand man, Muhyiddin Yassin, as prime minister, the eighth since Malaysia’s independence from the U.K. in 1957. Muhyiddin’s brief time in power was beset by political instability due to the razor-thin majority he managed to cobble together with Najib’s party. Muhyiddin resigned on Aug. 15, less than two weeks after UMNO, the largest party in the ruling coalition, retracted its support. This led the king to embark on a fresh search for a successor to avoid an election.