On Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed suddenly resigned, ending his coalition government’s rule after 20 months in office. Mahathir led the reformist political coalition called Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) that ousted the long-time ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in 2018.
Tom Pepinsky, professor of government at Cornell University, is an expert on the politics and political economy of Southeast Asia, particularly the Muslim world. He says that Mahathir’s resignation has created an unclear future for Malaysia, in which a new multiethnic regime or Malay-first coalition could gain power.
“The details remain murky, but two factors led to the general instability of Pakatan Harapan (PH). The first is a long-term structural challenge of factional politics in multiethnic Malaysia: PH is a multiethnic coalition of parties that presents a broad challenge to the Malay-dominated politics of the Barisan Nasional (BN), yet many among its members (including Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) are known for their Malay-first agendas.
“The second factor driving instability is the role of Mahathir Mohamad himself: at 94 years old, he has long dominated Malaysian politics and was himself the strongman ruler of the BN regime from 1981-2003. Since joining PH in order to help defeat the BN, rumors have swirled about the timeline for turning over authority to his longtime political rival (and erstwhile Deputy) Anwar Ibrahim.
“Malaysian politics enters a new phase of uncertainty in the wake of the government's collapse, with some PH politicians defecting and others adopting a wait-and-see approach. Mahathir, for his part, has resigned as Prime Minister, but was immediately named Interim Prime Minister. What comes next could be anything from a newly invigorated, multiethnic reformist coalition government to fresh elections that return an emboldened Malay-first coalition to power.”