Malaysia's Mahathir suffers blow as supporters abandon him

EILEEN NG
·4 min read

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's king on Friday said he will let party leaders nominate prime ministerial candidates, shifting the battle for power after opposition parties switched their allegiance from interim leader Mahathir Mohamad to a seasoned politician from his party.

Mahathir, 94, who is seeking to return as prime minister for a third time after his ruling alliance collapsed this week, suffered double blows after the king rejected his call for a vote in Parliament to elect a new leader and his supporters threw their backing to the president of his Bersatu party, Muhyiddin Yassin.

Muhyiddin, 72, is a long-time politician who served under former Prime Minister Najib Razak but was sacked in 2015 after he criticized Najib's handling of a massive graft scandal at the 1MDB state investment fund.

He helped Mahathir in 2016 form Bersatu, which later joined with an opposition alliance led by former foe Anwar Ibrahim to win a 2018 general election and oust Najib's corruption-tainted coalition that had led the country for 61 years.

The new ruling alliance collapsed after Muhyiddin led Bersatu out on Monday in a bid to form a new Malay-centric government with Najib's United Malays National Organization and several smaller opposition parties without Anwar. The plan flopped after Mahathir quit in protest of the plan to work with UMNO. Najib faces multiple corruption charges over the 1MDB saga and is currently on trial.

Many Malaysians have protested the possible formation of a “backdoor” government. But that plan could now be formalized if Muhyiddin secures majority support from lawmakers.

The astonishing twist comes after the palace confirmed in a statement that the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, had been unable to find a candidate with majority support to form a government after interviewing all 222 lawmakers.

The palace refused to side with Mahathir, who said Thursday the king would let the lower house of Parliament vote next Monday to elect a new prime minister and that snap elections would be called if there were an impasse.

The palace said the king took note of a decision by the house speaker earlier Friday to reject the Parliament vote, and that he would “continue to seek a solution in line with the federal constitution.” The palace will now reach out to leaders of political parties to let them nominate candidates for the top job, it said.

The palace's announcement came after a meeting of the Conference of Rulers, comprising nine ethnic Malay state rulers. Mahathir has a rocky relationship with the royals after stripping them of their power to veto legislation and removing their legal immunity during his first period as prime minister, which lasted 22 years until 2003.

Shortly after the king's decree, Bersatu said 36 lawmakers, including nearly a dozen who defected from Anwar's party, have decided to support Muhyiddin, instead of Mahathir, as prime minister.

UMNO and a fundamentalist Islamic party with strong rural support — which jointly control a quarter of the parliamentary seats — also said they will drop their call for new elections and support Muhyiddin's bid. Muhyiddin is seen by them as a more acceptable candidate because he is willing to work with UMNO.

Along with several smaller parties, Muhyiddin has now secured support from 96 lawmakers, more than the 92 lawmakers backing Anwar in his alliance. They need more than 112 votes to have a majority. Much will depend on a party in Sarawak state on Borneo island that holds 18 seats. It reportedly said it will announce whom it will support on Sunday, but Borneo parties usually back the government of the day.

Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, said Anwar's alliance will likely lose the game and emerge as a strong opposition. “Anwar has strengthened his support through this second betrayal," she added.

Anwar said he was confident of securing majority support because some lawmakers on the opposing side had been forced into supporting Muhyiddin. "Let’s see out this democratic process. God Willing," he tweeted.

Once a high-flying member in the ruling coalition, Anwar was sacked and later jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power after a power struggle with Mahathir in the 1990s. Anwar led a reform movement that helped build a fledgling opposition but was jailed a second time in 2014 on sodomy charges that he said were trumped up.

Mahathir later reconciled with Anwar amid anger over a massive graft scandal involving a state investment fund. They forged an alliance that won the 2018 election, ushering in the first change of government since independence from Britain in 1957.

The current political crisis was sparked in part by Mahathir's refusal to set a time frame to hand over power to Anwar, as they had agreed in their election pact.

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This story has been corrected to show that Muhyiddin was sacked and didn't quit.