KUALA LUMPUR, June 30 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently raised the stakes against both foes and allies by naming Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal as the Opposition’s prime minister of choice, but pundits see the gambit as a double-edged sword that could either aid his coalition to wrest power or fracture it further.
For the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, the Sabah chief minister’s nomination could stir nativist sentiment among its Borneo-based lawmakers drawn to the idea of having the first prime minister ever to hail from East Malaysia.
Analysts said it was likely that Dr Mahathir had sought to ride on the growing anti-Peninsular sentiment in Sabah and Sarawak to entice defections.
“It’s an interesting move that has an element of surprise in it,” said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the respected pollster Merdeka Center.
The inducement can be hard to turn away. A Borneo-born prime minister would be a feat both politically and economically. Sabah and Sarawak voters through their lawmakers now have direct access to the highest public office.
If Peninsular political bias was blamed for the states’ lagged growth, there is hope that a Sabahan prime minister could set that right, and make development there a national agenda.
Ultimately, politicians or parties seen supportive of the grand scheme could reap the political benefits, or according to Dr Mahathir’s calculations at least.
“On a wider scale, it remains to be seen whether Dr Mahathir’s effort will eventually gain traction and pressure his friends and allies to join forces to form a coalition large enough to wrest the majority in Parliament.
“In the short term, however, it could upset things for PN if Dr Mahathir can somehow pull existing PN MPs away,” Ibahim told Malay Mail.
GPS, a coalition of Sarawak’s ruling parties, and its counterpart, Gabungan Bersatu Sabah, together have 21 members of Parliament.
Just a third of defections from the two blocs is enough for “Pakatan Harapan (PH) Plus”, the alliance comprising PKR-DAP-Amanah, Shafie’s Parti Warisan Sabah and Dr Mahathir’s faction in Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, to form a new government.
PH Plus now controls 107 of the 222 seats in Parliament’s Lower House. It needs just five more to form a simple majority.
Yet pundits say there are exigent factors that would make the task strenuous.
Among them are the lingering doubts over Shafie’s own popularity, said political analyst Hoo Kee Ping, pointing to the rumours of a plan to topple his state government, which fueled talks of disunity and led to questions about his leadership.
Hoo claimed that confidence in Shafie has dwindled since.
“Shafie's support in Sabah at the moment is questionable as it is seen to be in decline,” he said.
Sabah’s unique political culture, where fickle allegiance and party-hopping is rampant, also makes it hard to gauge the true extent of Shafie’s influence, and if it is strong enough to rally a fractious state to back his prime ministership, the analyst said.
“Mind you, Sabah’s past electoral history is filled with defections and party-hopping, which is considered a norm,” he said.
“So Shafie would have a lot of fire to put out before he could even step a foot in the door, so to speak.
“I don't think the announcement does anything to bolster the confidence of Sabah lawmakers to support Shafie and some might not even take this seriously.”
Then there is PKR, whose president, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is adamant to have the prime ministership and whose opposition against naming Dr Mahathir for the post have fostered tension between them and coalition partners.
DAP and Amanah surprised observers by backing Dr Mahathir over Anwar, likely with the view that the 94-year-old stood a better chance at coaxing rival parties to sit at the negotiating table.
The plan would have entailed Anwar being deputy prime minister for half a year, after which he would succeed Dr Mahathir.
Outlining a clear timeline for succession and naming Dr Mahathir as the primary candidate was done for the sole purpose of averting elections, and pundits believe it makes a compelling case for DAP and Amanah to back Shafie’s nomination.
But there is risk that such a move would further upend ties with PKR, which has yet to state its position on Shafie’s nomination.
“This move places pressure on both Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to maintain the loyalty of the PN MPs and on Anwar to keep his own MPs with him,” Ibrahim said.
“As it stands, his PH allies have decided to side with Dr Mahathir and Shafie, leaving PKR the odd one out.”
Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a Sabah native, believes PKR would eventually concede, knowing that Anwar may not realistically command majority support in Parliament.
“They cling on untenably to wanting to push Anwar as prime minister yet not being able to muster a parliamentary majority to carry through as such, even with Warisan's support,” he said.
“They have to come to the painful realisation that playing second or even third fiddle in a ruling coalition is far better than suffering in the political wild like now.”