(Feb 24): Malaysian politics is set for another shakeup, but with a familiar script: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad refusing to hand power to Anwar Ibrahim.

Barely two years after he joined with his old rival for a stunning election win that ousted an alliance in power for six decades, Mahathir’s supporters are reportedly maneuvering to form a new government that will exclude Anwar, the man positioned to be his successor. The episode is reminiscent of the 1990s, when Anwar was ousted from Mahathir’s cabinet and arrested for sodomy.

Despite pledges ahead of the May 2018 election to hand power to Anwar, the 94-year-old premier has repeatedly said he will step down only after resolving problems inherited by the previous administration. Anwar said they had an “understanding” it should take place around May this year.

On Sunday, Anwar confirmed that some members of his own party were working with Mahathir’s camp to reconfigure the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, and had met with the country’s king on Sunday. Anwar is scheduled to have an audience with Malaysia’s king at 2pm on Monday, New Straits Times reported, citing his political secretary.

While the monarchy’s role in Malaysia is largely ceremonial, the king retains some discretionary powers and political leaders typically meet the ruler before announcing major political changes. Mahathir was not present at the meeting with the king or a dinner later attended by many party leaders from ruling and opposition groups, including the United Malays National Organisation, or Umno, the party he once led before defecting.

“Right now we are waiting for information,” Anwar said in response to a question at a Sunday event streamed on Facebook. “But we know there’s an attempt to topple PH to form a new government,” he added, pointing to “former friends” in Mahathir’s party and those who may have defected from his own camp.

A spokesperson for Mahathir’s Bersatu party could not immediately be reached for comment on Anwar’s remarks.

The political intrigue could bring fresh tumult to Malaysia, and deter investors looking for stability at a time when the global coronavirus epidemic and trade wars are hurting growth. Malaysia’s benchmark stock index has already dropped more than 20% from its peak in 2018, and is set to enter a bear market for the first time in 12 years.

‘Sell signal’

“It’s a sell signal,” said Stephen Innes, chief market strategist at Axicorp. “The current situation will likely mean there will be horse-trading going on and that may be more likely to boost spending rather than fiscal prudence and, perhaps, the risk here is more massive deficits. But the more parties involved, the more complicated the horse-trading.”

Should he break ties with Anwar, Mahathir would need alliances with Umno and another opposition group, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, because he would not have enough parliamentary seats to retain power without them. He must have the support from 112 out of 222 members of parliament.

Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, or PKR, has 50 seats in parliament, and it is not clear how many will stick with him. Azmin Ali, deputy president of the party, was reported to have met with the king on Sunday. Azmin, who is also economic affairs minister, has at times been publicly at odds with Anwar.

Leaders from PAS, Umno, Bersatu and the PKR faction aligned to Azmin gathered for a banquet dinner on Sunday night at the Sheraton Hotel PJ, which was mobbed with supporters, media and on-lookers. Police manned the entrance, questioning cars that wanted to enter. Most politicians either deflected questions or refused to speak to the media, with Umno Secretary-general Annuar Musa saying he was “here for free food”.

“Thank you everyone for waiting here for a long time,” Azmin told reporters late on Sunday. “God willing, we will continue our pursuit of reformation for the country and bring prosperity to all Malaysians.”

The ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, also part of the ruling coalition, has 42 seats and it is not known where their loyalties lie, though they were not mentioned as being in audience with the king on Sunday. DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng is Malaysia’s finance minister, and he may be replaced if his party is not part of the new government.

Bersatu has 26 seats, and another ruling coalition party, Amanah, has 11. Umno and PAS have 56 between them, while some parties in the states of Sabah and Sarawak are expected to support Mahathir.

“We’ve been through worse before,” a visibly-tired Anwar, 72, said on Sunday. “This is just a small test.”

Bitter decades

The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir has been marked by decades of bitterness and public attacks, stemming from Mahathir’s decision during a prior stint in power to sack Anwar as his deputy amid a dispute on how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis two decades ago.

After he was fired in 1998, Anwar was jailed in the majority Muslim nation for committing sodomy and abusing power, charges he denied. He was convicted in 2014 — during former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s rule — on a subsequent sodomy charge and jailed in 2015 when his appeal was denied.

Anwar was pardoned by the king a week after 2018 election victory and thanked Mahathir for his help in getting released. Mahathir had promised during the election campaign to stand aside for Anwar once he was free but almost immediately pushed back the potential timeline by a number of years.

Questions on the timeline for the handover of power never ceased, fraying the ruling alliance and making it harder for the government to focus on fulfilling campaign pledges.

At a Friday press conference, Mahathir said he had unanimous agreement from Pakatan Harapan leaders to stay in power through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings later this year, which Malaysia is hosting. He said he held the prerogative to decide whether to step down at all. Anwar, who was at the media briefing, concurred and said he would need to be patient.

“We have been most moderate in our approach, always supportive, and almost god-like in our level of patience,” Anwar said on Sunday. He referenced the legend of a deity with a magic arrow and said, “at the right moment, we will use our magic arrow.”