Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tendered his resignation to Malaysia's king on Monday while his political party quit the ruling alliance, in a shocking political upheaval less than two years after his election victory.
The prime minister's office said in a brief statement that Mahathir, 94, submitted his resignation to the palace at 1 p.m. but gave no further details. Mahathir also quit as chairman of his Bersatu party.
The stunning turn of events come amid plans by Mahathir's supporters in Bersatu to team with opposition parties to form a new government and thwart the transition of power to his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim.
Minutes before his resignation was offered, Bersatu said it would leave the four-party Alliance of Hope and support Mahathir as the prime minister. Eleven other lawmakers, including several Cabinet ministers, also announced they are quitting Anwar's party to form an independent bloc.
The withdrawal of more than three dozen lawmakers means the ruling alliance has lost its majority in Parliament, throwing the country into an uncertain future and sparking fears of more turmoil over how the political drama will play out.
Opinions are divided on whether Mahathir is quitting for good or making a tactical move to buy time to cobble together a new majority to form a government.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who met Bersatu and several other leaders on Sunday, met Anwar on Monday afternoon and summoned Mahathir to the palace. Analysts said the king could decide on which faction has the support or dissolve Parliament for snap elections.
The political drama unravelled Sunday with manoeuvre's aimed at keeping Mahathir in power and thwarting Anwar, replaying their decades-old feud. Anwar was Mahathir's deputy during Mahathir's first stint as prime minister but fell out politically before reuniting in the political pact that ousted a corruption-tainted government in the May 2018 election. Mahathir has refused to set a date to relinquish power despite a preelection agreement to hand over power to Anwar.
Anwar confirmed late Sunday there were attempts by some Bersatu members and "traitors" from his party to form a new government in a "betrayal" of their political pact. He said Monday after meeting Mahathir with other alliance leaders that Mahathir had quit as he didn't want to be associated with the former government that he worked so hard to oust in 2018 polls.
"His name was used, by those within my party and outside," Anwar told reporters. Mahathir "reiterated to me what he had said earlier, that he played no part in it and he made it very clear, that in no way will he ever work with those associated with the past regime," he added.
Ironically, the manoeuvre's would restore to power the Malay party of disgraced former leader Najib Razak, who with several of his party leaders are standing trial for corruption. It would also propel to national power a fundamentalist Islamic party that rules two states and champions Islamic laws. The two Malay parties still have strong support from ethnic Malays, who account for 60% of Malaysia's 32 million people.
Mahathir has remained silent, but many Malaysians reacted with dismay and shock on social media, saying moves to form a "backdoor" government would be unethical and that a new election should be called if the ruling alliance collapses.
In a new twist, two other parties in Anwar's alliance said they would propose at an emergency meeting Monday night that Mahathir remain as prime minister to continue their reformist agenda.
Analysts warned that such a new government could give rise to Malay Islamic supremacy that would derail Malaysia's multi-ethnic society.
"If the new government goes through, Malaysia is heading toward a very regressive stage whereby racial supremacy and religious extremism would become the rule of the day," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.