Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim declared Wednesday that he had secured a “formidable” parliamentary majority to establish a new government, but Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin rejected the stunning claim, which came just days ahead of a key state assembly vote.
At a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar declined to say how many of the 222 lawmakers in parliament were supporting him, but insisted he had the backing of a strong majority so Muhyiddin Yassin could no longer be prime minister.
“With clear and indisputable support and a majority behind me, the government led by Muhyiddin Yassin has fallen,” Anwar told reporters.
“I will meet with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [the king], when he regains his health, and will provide more information to the public about what happens next.”
In a statement, the National Palace confirmed that Anwar had requested an audience with the king on Tuesday but the meeting was postponed because the monarch was being treated in a hospital.
According to the statement, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah asked the people of Malaysia to remain calm and “prioritize the wellbeing of the people and the country that we love.”
Muhyiddin, whose unelected government came to power six months ago, has been clinging to a razor-thin majority. However, in dismissing Anwar’s claim, Muhyiddin said the government led by him stood strong.
He said Anwar needed to constitutionally validate his claim that he had majority support.
“Until proven otherwise, the Perikatan Nasional government remains strong and I am the legitimate Prime Minister,” Muhyiddin said in a statement to the media.
‘Not a small majority’
Anwar held the press conference with his wife, former Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and Saifuddin Nasution, the secretary general of his People’s Justice Party (PKR), at his side.
The opposition leader said he had the support of members of parliament (MPs) from several political parties in addition to those in his old Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, whose government came to power through an upset victory in the 2018 general election but which collapsed in late February.
“I’m not talking about four, five or six … I’m talking more than that. They are MPs from various parties. Strong, formidable, convincing majority. Not a small majority.”
Anwar needs 112 seats to form a government. His longtime allies in Pakatan, Amanah and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), have declared their support for him as prime minister.
Pakatan Harapan has 91 seats in parliament, which means Anwar is currently 21 short of a majority.
In June, a very narrow margin of votes handed Muhyiddin his first win as PM on the parliamentary floor, on his motion to remove the speaker of the House. Lawmakers voted 111-109 to oust the speaker and at the time of the vote. One MP was absent and another abstained from voting.
Anwar’s PKR party was a key member of the Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope coalition, which pulled off a stunning victory in the May 2018 election but which collapsed in February this year. The coalition also comprised the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu, co-founded by Muhyiddin and Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was the coalition’s consensus candidate for the post of prime minister.
In the run up to the election, Mahathir had joined forces with Anwar, whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge. In a pact the two leaders entered, Mahathir agreed to hand the reins of government to Anwar after two years – an arrangement endorsed by voters in the Pakatan victory.
But the transition of power never materialized and Mahathir’s government unraveled over infighting over who should succeed him. Muhyiddin was appointed as the new prime minister by the king after Muhyiddin pulled out of Pakatan with several other lawmakers and allied themselves with parties that lost the 2018 polls.
At the time of his appointment as PM, Muhyiddin said he was backed by a new “National Alliance” of lawmakers from Bersatu, the former ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), lawmakers from Sarawak in eastern Malaysia, and independents.
Some UMNO lawmakers support Anwar
Some MPs affiliated with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a partner in Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, may be leaning towards supporting Anwar, the party’s leader indicated Wednesday.
“The support for PN [Perikatan Nasional] is in the form of support from [individual] members of parliament only,” UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement.
He added that he was told that many UMNO MPs had expressed their support for Anwar and that he “respects” their stand.
UMNO “will not stop its members of parliament who decide to support Anwar Ibrahim,” Hamidi said.
Meanwhile, parties friendly with the government affirmed their support for Muhyiddin and dismissed Anwar’s claim, calling it a move for “cheap publicity.”
“All parties cooperating with the Perikatan Nasional government, that is Barisan Nasional (BN), Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), [the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party], Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku Rakyat Sabah (STAR), today stand firmly in support of the government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin,” these parties said in a joint statement.
Anwar’s “latest action highlights his greedy and power-crazy attitude which pays no heed to the country's political and economic stability, or the fate of the people who are badly affected by COVID-19,” the statement added.
Earlier in the day, before Anwar’s press conference, Mahathir, the 95-year-old former prime minister, was asked about the claims by his former deputy.
“We will have to wait to see if this is another episode of making claims that cannot be substantiated,” he told reporters, according to The Edge news outlet.
Sabah election connection
Anwar’s announcement Wednesday that he has majority support came three days before the State Assembly election in Sabah, one of the two states that make up Malaysian Borneo.
The election represents the first state assembly polls since Muhyiddin’s government came to power.
Last week, Muhyiddin said that his Perikatan Nasional coalition should “quickly hold” a general election should parties aligned with his side in Sabah win the Sept. 26 state polls.
“What’s important in the Sabah polls is the signal that we can get on whether or not they are supporting Perikatan Nasional or wanting me to continue being the prime minister, because we want Malaysia to move forward and succeed. One of the ways to succeed is to stick with me,” the Straits Times newspaper of Singapore quoted the prime minister as saying.
The state election was triggered after some ruling party lawmakers in Sabah pledged their allegiance to the opposition, prompting the chief minister Shafie Apdal, who is allied with Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, to dissolve the state assembly.
Speaking to BenarNews, political analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, from the International Islamic University Malaysia, said Anwar could be using the announcement to entice MPs to cross the floor or to affect the electoral outcome in Sabah.
“He’s putting his reputation at stake with this bold move.”
Still, the king has the power to dissolve parliament and can do so under the advice of the Prime Minister, Tunku Mohar said.
“If Anwar has the numbers, but if the king dissolves the parliament, Anwar’s claim amounts to nothing.”
According to the Reuters news service, “the king could make him premier if he is convinced Anwar can command a majority.”
Another analyst told BenarNews that Anwar’s announcement could be a tactic to pressure Muhyiddin to join the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
“Obviously they are still negotiating but Anwar made the announcement to put pressure on Muhyiddin to join him in a coalition,” said James Chin, a University of Tasmania professor.
Chin believes this latest development might just lead the king to call snap general elections.
“The next scenario for Muhyiddin and Anwar is a snap election.”