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Teething trouble: Malaysia’s new ruling alliance hit by early split over cabinet positions

Rift forms among four parties making up the fledgling coalition government, with Anwar supporters accusing PM Mahathir of ‘bulldozing’ the process

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 10:24pm

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim tried to ease a rift within their ruling alliance on Sunday after differences erupted between their supporters over cabinet positions.

The four-party alliance scored a historic victory in Wednesday’s general election over the long-ruling Barisan Nasional government, but the emergence of a rift so soon is raising questions about the unity of what was always an unlikely coalition.

In a statement from his hospital bed, Anwar said he told members of his People’s Justice Party (PKR) to ensure that Mahathir’s government “remains strong and stable”.

But he also said, in a conversation with Mahathir, that he raised PKR’s demand for “more inclusive negotiation”, a reference to the formation of the cabinet.

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Mahathir said on state television that “at the beginning, we shouldn’t look at proportion” in the cabinet.

“It will be made up when we make up the rest of the cabinet,” he said. “Surely there will be some conflict in need and wants of each party. This will be determined by the prime minister.”

Mahathir is the alliance leader and Anwar’s PKR has most of the seats in parliament won by the group. 

The volatile relationship between the two, from friends to foes to allies, has dominated Malaysia’s political landscape for over three decades and is central to the future of the alliance.

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Mahathir announced just three ministers on Saturday, to join himself and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife, in the cabinet. He was to announce 10, and sources within the alliance said there was no agreement on the others.

The sources declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Wan Azizah did not attend the news conference to announce the new ministers because of the disagreements, said one source in the alliance.

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Mahathir then visited Anwar in hospital where he is recovering from a shoulder operation and the atmosphere was frosty, said another source who was present. They said Mahathir and Anwar are expected to meet again on Sunday to patch up differences over the cabinet positions.

“Even the three appointed [are not final] because the decision was made without our participation,” Rafizi Ramli, a senior member of PKR, was quoted as saying by Malaysiakini website. “[Mahathir] bulldozed it. He just unilaterally announced.”

PKR won 48 seats out of the 113 won by the alliance in the May 9 election. Among other members of the coalition, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) won 42, Mahathir’s Bersatu party won 12 and the Amanah party of new Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu won 11.

“The transition of power in Malaysia will be like water finding a new level, these things won’t be resolved quickly,” said Karim Raslan, founder of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm for Southeast Asia. “It will be a race against time as the two grand old men of Malaysian politics – Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim – struggle to assert themselves.”