Malaysia's top lawyer: PM still in power after ally quits

·4 min read

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's attorney general said Thursday that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin remains in power until it can be proven in Parliament that he has lost majority support.

The country was in political limbo after the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in the governing alliance, pulled its support for Muhyiddin. The head of UMNO urged Muhyiddin to step aside for an interim leader to take over until a general election can be held safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

It marked the culmination of months of tensions since Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the downfall of the reformist government that won the 2018 election. His Bersatu party joined up with UMNO, which was ousted in the 2018 polls, and others to form a new government. But the alliance was unstable with a razor-thin majority in Parliament and UMNO was unhappy at playing second fiddle to Bersatu.

The announcement could trigger the collapse of Muhyiddin’s unelected government and fresh elections, although polls are unlikely during the raging pandemic.

Attorney General Idrus Harun said there is no clear evidence that Muhyiddin has lost majority support in Parliament. He said this can only be decided by lawmakers in the lower house, not based on the statement of a political party.

“Therefore, legally, the prime minister and his Cabinet remain in power to exercise their federal executive power,” he said in a brief statement.

There has been no reaction from Muhyiddin, 78.

Parliament has been suspended under a coronavirus emergency decree since January. The measure was criticized by UMNO and others as a way for Muhyiddin to stay in power. The legislature is to resume July 26, ahead of the Aug. 1 expiration of the emergency decree, after Muhyiddin caved in to growing pressure, including from the nation’s king.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi earlier Thursday accused Muhyiddin’s government of failing to tackle the pandemic. He said its inconsistent policies and half-baked lockdown measures had deepened economic hardship, with deaths doubling to more than 5,700 since a large-scale lockdown began June 1.

Zahid urged Muhyiddin to resign honorably and make way for a temporary leader who would focus on battling the pandemic until it is safe to hold a general election.

“This is important to allow a government that is truly stable and has the mandate of the majority of the people to be formed,” he said after a meeting of UMNO’s top decision-making body.

But it is unclear if UMNO's 38 lawmakers will toe the party line. Some have already protested Zahid's announcement. Local media said Defense Minister Ismail Sabri, named by Muhyiddin as his deputy on Wednesday, led opposition to Zahid's plan to exit the ruling alliance at the UMNO meeting.

Muhyiddin’s office also said Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein would take over Ismail’s post as one of four senior ministers. Both Ismail and Hishammuddin are to retain their security and diplomatic portfolios respectively.

Analysts said Muhyiddin has split UMNO by appointing second-tier leaders to his Cabinet and reinforced it with the new appointments.

“There has been 17 months of political deals and things have now come to a head. There is open war in UMNO and we have a weak government trying still to stay in power," said Bridget Welsh of Malaysia's University of Nottingham and an expert in Southeast Asian politics.

No coalition has a clear majority in Parliament. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may try to seek support but Zahid has said UMNO will not endorse his candidacy for prime minister.

Anwar's alliance accused the attorney general of playing politics. It backed Zahid's statement, saying Muhyiddin was elected by the king last year based on support vouched by party heads, not individual lawmakers. The opposition said Muhyiddin must quit because he had lost support and the legitimacy to lead.

UMNO earlier this year said the party will not work with Muhyiddin’s alliance in the next general election. Its attempt to seek early elections has been stymied by a worsening coronavirus crisis. Malaysia reported 8,868 new infections on Thursday, bringing its total confirmed cases to 808,658. A record 135 deaths were recorded, pushing the death toll to 5,903.