Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned Monday in a move analysts said appeared to be an effort to form a new coalition and block the succession of leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim.
The shock move followed weekend political drama that saw an attempt by Anwar’s rivals within his own “Pact of Hope” coalition — which stormed to a historic election victory in 2018 — and opposition politicians to form a new government.
That coalition would reportedly have excluded Anwar, Mahathir’s presumptive successor and a former opposition icon who was jailed for years on questionable sodomy charges, blocking his ascent to the premiership.
Anwar and Mahathir — the world’s oldest leader, aged 94 — have a notoriously stormy relationship but joined forces to oust a corruption-plagued government at the 2018 polls.
Mahathir, who previously served as premier from 1981 to 2003, had made a pre-election pledge to hand power to Anwar but has repeatedly refused to fix a date.
The weekend push to form a new government appeared to have fizzled out by early Monday, but then Mahathir’s office made the surprise announcement that he had “sent a resignation letter as prime minister of Malaysia” to the king at 1:00 pm (0500 GMT).
Shortly before, Mahathir’s Bersatu party announced it was leaving the ruling coalition and 11 lawmakers resigned from Anwar’s party, leaving the Pact of Hope in tatters and fuelling speculation efforts could be underway to form a new alliance.
Anwar was due to see the king Monday, with speculation mounting that he would try to convince him that he had the backing of enough MPs to form a government. While his role is largely ceremonial, the monarch approves the appointment of the prime minister, who must have the backing of most MPs in parliament.
“If he has the majority then Anwar is the next prime minister,” Azmi Hassan, a political analyst with University Technology Malaysia, told TIME.
But he added that “with Bersatu out of (the ruling coalition)… most probably Anwar won’t have the numbers”.
Mahathir’s party may now join hands with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — the lynchpin of the forming ruling coalition, and a party of scandal-tainted ex-leader Najib Razak — and other groups to try to form a government, he said.
Anwar had teamed up with former nemesis Mahathir ahead of the 2018 elections to oust the government of Najib, who had become embroiled in the massive 1MDB graft scandal, and they led their alliance to victory against a coalition that had ruled Malaysia for six decades.
The pair’s difficult relationship has dominated Malaysia’s political landscape for over two decades.
As a finance minister and a powerful UMNO figure in the 1990s, Anwar had been tipped as Mahathir’s successor for the premiership, but his boss sacked him after they fell out over how to respond to a financial crisis.
Anwar was arrested and thrown in jail after being convicted of sodomy and corruption in a case critics said was trumped up, but he emerged from prison to unify a ragtag political opposition into a potent force against the long-ruling government.
Tensions had risen in the Pact of Hope coalition after Mahathir refused to fix a date to hand power to Anwar.
The government’s popularity had also been falling and they lost a string of local polls, as they faced accusations of failing to protect the country’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority and not moving fast enough on reforms.
Their opponents also argued the party was becoming dominated by ethnic Chinese politicians. The race is a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia, which is about 60 percent Muslim but also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Many were angry, however, that the democratically elected government, which came to power partly on a pledge to push through much-needed reforms, could be replaced without an election.
The people “will not agree to or cooperate with any ‘backdoor’ government formed out of the selfish, self-preservation agenda of certain MPs”, said a statement from a group of leading activists and academics.