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Malaysia's frustrated 'No. 2' leaders pull off political coup

But future for Muhyiddin and Azmin remains murky in country's Byzantine politics

New Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, left, speaks next to International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali during a press conference. The men have upended Malaysia's political order.   © AP

BANGKOK -- That politics is a power game was reconfirmed late last month by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's surprise resignation and the subsequent formation of a new government through the complicated alignment and realignment of political parties.

On March 11, or the day after the new Malaysian government came to power, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, and International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali, 55, stood next to each other at a news conference following its first cabinet meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia's federal administrative capital. The two top leaders of the new government masterminded the political upheaval.

Mahathir, 94, accomplished Malaysia's first ever political transition by leading an opposition coalition to beat the United Malaysia National Organization in the general election in May 2018. UMNO, which Mahathir once headed, had governed the country for more than 60 years since independence.

To oust the government of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, tainted by corruption allegations, Mahathir joined hands in the election with 72-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, his longtime political foe and former deputy prime minister.

Behind that election victory, Muhyiddin headed a party established by Mahathir, while Azmin supported Anwar's party as its deputy leader. Muhyiddin and Azmin then joined the coalition government as ministers for home affairs and economic affairs, respectively.

But less than two years later, Muhyiddin and Azmin on Feb. 23 presented a plan to form a new coalition government, including UMNO, to Malaysian King Abdullah of Pahang, who holds the power to appoint a prime minister.

The rebellious plan was aimed at derailing Anwar from becoming the next prime minister, something he had been promised by Mahathir. Muhyiddin and Azmin initially asked Mahathir to continue serving as prime minister. But unwilling to ride on the shoulders of UMNO -- the party he had overthrown -- Mahathir decided to temporarily step down and return to office under a government of national reconciliation.

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resisted collaborating with UMNO.    © Reuters

But Muhyiddin and Azmin deserted Mahathir and seized power by jostling for votes in parliament.

The nearly weeklong political turmoil thus came to a halt.

A simple question is why Muhyiddin and Azmin, treated well in the Mahathir administration, rebelled against it, given that a single misstep could have seen them expelled from the government. Behind the risky move is the depression that has for years haunted No. 2 political leaders in Malaysian politics.

For the past quarter century, politics has centered on a struggle between two charismatic leaders -- Mahathir and Anwar -- and goes back to a series events related to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 when the pair clashed over how to address the challenge. Mahathir, prime minister, dumped Anwar, then deputy prime minister and finance minister. Anwar was subsequently arrested for alleged sodomy and corruption.

In the aftermath, Muhyiddin stayed loyal to Mahathir while Azmin supported Anwar.

Muhyiddin, who was a local government official in the state of Johor, which borders Singapore, joined UMNO in the 1970s and became head of the local government there in his 30s. But he was often overshadowed by Anwar, who is the same age and also a graduate of the University of Malaya, the country's highest-ranking institution of higher education.

A turning point in Muhyiddin's career came in 2015 when he was replaced as deputy prime minister for criticizing Najib's handling of allegations about fraud involving the 1MDB state investment fund. He quit UMNO together with Mahathir and established a new party.

Although Muhyiddin was given the post of home affairs minister after the 2018 general election, Mahathir picked Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife, as deputy prime minister. Furthermore, Mahathir pledged to hand over power to Anwar within two years. Muhyiddin was ready to succeed the world's oldest leader but feared losing his chance to Anwar.

Azmin graduated from the University of Minnesota in the U.S. in 1987 and became a secretary for Anwar, who was serving as education minister. Mahathir is said to have introduced them.

When Anwar was expelled from UMNO in 1998, Azmin quit the party and the pair established a new one. He was elected to parliament for the first time in the 1999 general election and worked to form an opposition coalition as Anwar's right-hand man.

But the relationship between Anwar and Azmin began to crack around 2014. Anwar sought to lead Selangor, a state in which his party had the most seats in the local assembly. But as he was again found guilty of sodomy, Azmin became Selangor's leader.

That development possibly deepened their rift. After the change of government in 2018, Anwar was granted a pardon and returned to politics. He then gave the cold shoulder to Azmin, who had managed the party during his imprisonment. In the election to choose party executives, Azmin sought the post of deputy party leader but faced a rival candidate fielded by Anwar.

Anwar Ibrahim once sought to lead Selangor but Azmin became the leader.    © Reuters

The tense relationship reached its breaking point when videos purporting to show Azmin having sex with another man were leaked on social networking sites. An aide to Anwar was arrested for allegedly leaking the videos.

Azmin denied the allegation, stressing that the videos were a "nefarious plot" aimed at ending his political career. Although Anwar also denied any involvement, but their soured relationship was clear to all.

Despite the disparity in age between Muhyiddin and Azmin, it was clear that either's potential path to leading Malaysia would drastically narrow if Anwar succeeded Mahathir as prime minister.

But the true cause of the latest political turmoil is Mahathir himself. He openly declared that he would hand over the post of prime minister to Anwar, but never clarified when. Speculation was rife that in his heart did not want to pass the baton to Anwar.

Mahathir promoted Anwar to an important post when the latter was a young Islamic leader. But he took an axe to Anwar's political career in 1998 not just because of differences in addressing the Asian financial crisis. The old leader allegedly felt alarmed by the emerging one's ability and popularity.

The Star, a local Malaysian newspaper, reported that Mahathir on the day after Muhyiddin was sworn into the post, said at a meeting that Anwar had long been ''obsessed'' with becoming prime minister. ''In the past, he had a lot of support,'' Mahathir said, according to the paper. ''But now, people support me.''

Those remarks expressed Mahathir's disappointment with the end of his political partnership with Anwar. In the end, however, it was Mahathir who possibly continued to cling to power more than anyone else.

Both Mahathir and Anwar tended to "hammer down the nail that sticks out," said Masashi Nakamura, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Tokyo-based Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. "They are identical in the sense that they are unable to nurture No. 2s."

The new government of Muhyiddin, who has at long last escaped being a No. 2, has named no deputy prime minister, a first in Malaysia's political history. The roles of that position are instead being shared by four senior ministers: those for international trade and industry, defense, public works and education.

And while Azmin is seen as most likely to eventually succeed Muhyiddin, given the Byzantine nature of Malaysian politics, that prospect is by no means guaranteed.

Mahathir and Anwar have their eyes on turning the tide by submitting a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin's government at the next session of parliament that has been postponed until May.

An end to Malaysia's fierce power struggle is nowhere in sight.

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