The Prime Minister may have emerged with a stronger hand after a meeting that saw his coalition partners divided on the issue of a specific handover date to his successor.
THE body language and unsmiling faces of the Pakatan Harapan leaders said it all.
The coalition’s presidential council meeting that ended just minutes before midnight on Friday had been tense and the discussion heated and polemic.
The meeting was supposed to pin the Prime Minister down to a definite exit date.
It was quite a pivotal victory for Dr Mahathir who wore his lucky red jacket to the meeting.
He had defied the odds and emerged with a stronger hand than before.
He had basically been given a carte blanche to decide or, as he said several times during the press conference, it is up to him to decide when to go and there was “no time, no date, no nothing”.
The outcome of the meeting appeared to have energised him and his often phlegmy voice sounded clear and strong even though it was way past his usual 11pm bedtime.
Yet, according to one of those at the meeting, Dr Mahathir did not talk much and “just sat there listening, smiling now and then”.
It was not a good night for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his loyal wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who sat as still as a statue throughout the press conference, and only reached out to place a consoling hand on her husband’s arm after it was over.
Anwar thought he would be taking a step forward but he may have ended up two steps backwards.
He is still in waiting mode and some are wondering whether he will ever make it after watching the way Dr Mahathir plays the game.
Those who stuck out their necks at the meeting to argue on his behalf also felt let down that Anwar had not fought harder.
The meeting has also revealed the deep split between those who want an indefinite tenure for Dr Mahathir and those who want to fix a date for Anwar to take over.
Each of the Pakatan partners was represented by about five or more leaders and the line was clearly between DAP and the Anwar faction of PKR on one side and Bersatu and the Azmin camp on the other.
Amanah, from most accounts, seemed to be in two minds on the issue. Khalid Abdul Samad and Dr Hatta Ramli of Amanah pushed hard to fix a date.
However, their president Mohamad Sabu said it should be up to Dr Mahathir to decide when to go while supporting the transition to Anwar.
Those for fixing a date argued on grounds that it would bring about certainty and stability.
They said it was also part of the mandate from the people who supported Pakatan thinking that Anwar would eventually take over.
DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong also argued for Anwar to join the Cabinet.
He said Anwar needs to show greater commitment to government decisions and policies and that would be possible if he is part of the Cabinet.
Unfortunately, his proposal was not picked up by the others and it was somewhat academic given that the leaders could not even agree on a transition date.
The temperature went up when Armada chief Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman hit out at the pro-Anwar group.
He said he does not question Anwar’s position as the successor but Anwar’s boys had begun pressuring Dr Mahathir as early as six months into the job.
“You come here and say you agree but your boys outside say Tun Mahathir must go, ” said Syed Saddiq.
PKR vice-president Tian Chua’s arguments against fixing a date were the most sensible.
He said that in a democratic society, an exit date is set only if the leader no longer has the confidence of his colleagues.
Even then, the group must have the numbers to act.
However, he said fixing a date could have an adverse effect because nothing much will move and decisions would be deferred until the handover.
He said the uncertainty is not caused by the lack of a fixed date but because of concern whether the next leader will cancel projects, ditch policies and sack people he does not like.
In that sense, Chua added that Anwar must show that he supports what the current government is doing and that there will be continuity rather than disruption when he takes over.
“That is the certainty people are looking for, ” he said.
After about two hours, Dr Mahathir, in an attempt to reach a consensus, told the meeting: “We have heard from the two sides. Both say they love me but one side wants to set a date, the other is asking me to stay on. So what do you want me to do?”
That triggered another one hour of discussion.
But Anwar realised that things were going nowhere especially with the Bersatu side threatening a pullout if their party chairman is forced to set a date.
And when Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin suggested that Dr Mahathir and Anwar be allowed to sort it out between them, Anwar decided to step up to the plate and declare that Dr Mahathir be allowed to decide when to go. He knows Dr Mahathir all too well.
The elder man has brought down two former prime ministers and there is no need to give him a chance to bring down a third.
Dr Mahathir was not giving in and Anwar knew he had to be the one to concede, to live and fight another day.
Many people thought they saw flashes of the old Mahathir as he spoke that night – the don’t-mess-with-me Mahathir of yesteryear whom his Pakatan partners are only now getting to know.
“It was quite a victorious night for Mahathir. His hand is stronger than ever, ” said political commentator Rita Sim.
But the deep divide suggests that an uneasy transition lies ahead.