Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad disputes sacking from Bersatu, the party he co-founded

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has been sacked from the Malay-centric party he co-founded and led to victory in the 2018 general election - a move the 94-year-old leader immediately disputed.

Hours after being issued termination letters on Thursday evening, Mahathir and four key allies from the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) released a statement indicating they did not recognise their sacking.

Instead, their countermove was to sack the party's working secretary for sending out the termination letters.

The late-night saga occurred amid speculation that Mahathir had managed to garner enough support from MPs in the 222-seat legislature to make a dramatic return to the prime ministership for the third time, after his shock removal from power in February.

In a letter to the veteran leader dated Thursday, PPBM - which staged a self-coup that toppled Mahathir - said his decision to sit alongside the official opposition in last week's parliament sitting was grounds for his party membership to be "immediately nullified".

The letter cited sections of the party constitution that said members were liable to be sacked immediately if they were found to have declared an intention to leave the party or if they formally joined another party.

The local news websites The Malaysian Insight and Malaysiakini shared a copy of the letter on Twitter. Alongside Mahathir, four key allies - including his son Mukhriz Mahathir, former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and former education minister Maszlee Malik - were also sacked from the party.

The fifth person axed from the party was Amiruddin Hamzah, the deputy finance minister during Mahathir's 22 months as prime minister. Mahathir previously served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

In a statement issued late on Thursday, the five politicians described their dismissal as "wrong" and "illegal".

"We do not accept that our memberships can be terminated without us having broken the law… this action also denies us the right to self-defence, which is guaranteed under the principles of the rule of law," the statement said.

Subsequently, a second letter issued by Marzuki Yahya, a Mahathir loyalist who has been holding the position of party secretary-general, said party working secretary Muhammad Suhaimi Yahya was to be immediately terminated for issuing the five leaders their marching orders.

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The drama brought into sharp focus the complicated struggle for power within the party in the midst of a national-level political crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since March's coup, PPBM has been split into two factions backing Mahathir and current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin respectively.

Muhyiddin, a protege of Mahathir, is the president of PPBM and was central to the party's decision in late February to pull itself out of the Pakatan Harapan alliance that won the 2018 polls against the long-ruling Barisan Nasional administration.

The party - which grants full membership only to members of Malay descent - made that move after disagreements with multiracial partners in Pakatan Harapan.

Muhyiddin and other instigators in Pakatan Harapan subsequently joined forces with the defeated Barisan Nasional, including the scandal-tainted former premier Najib Razak, to form the Perikatan Nasional alliance that is in power right now.

The country's king, who has constitutional discretion to appoint a lawmaker to the role of prime minister if he believes they hold the confidence of the majority of the house, replaced Mahathir with Muhyiddin on February 29.

Muhyiddin and Mahathir were former members of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the linchpin party of both Barisan Nasional and the new Perikatan Nasional.

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In 2016 the duo formed PPBM in a bid to remove Najib from power after reports of his alleged involvement in widespread corruption at the 1MDB state fund came to the fore.

Exacerbating the party's internal turmoil are its upcoming elections, which have been indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic.

Muhyiddin is up against Mukhriz for the presidency. Mahathir says he holds the position of chairman after facing a walkover, but the party has disputed that. Muhyiddin's faction also disputes Marzuki's assertion that he remains the party's secretary-general.

The announcement on the elder statesman's sacking from PPBM came as social media was abuzz with speculation that he had managed to garner the support of 129 MPs to reclaim the prime ministership from Muhyiddin.

When parliament sat last week for a half-day session, 107 MPs - five short of a simple majority - sat on seats usually allocated to non-government MPs.

Mahathir had intended to call a vote of confidence against Muhyiddin during the session but the government only included one item in the May 18 sitting - the king's ceremonial speech.

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Muhyiddin's lieutenants said an extended parliamentary sitting was untenable due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the government has scheduled the next sitting for July.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.