Updated at 4:03 p.m. ET on 2020-02-28
A former home minister has emerged as a front runner to become Malaysia’s next leader, after the king concurred with a decision by the parliamentary speaker on Friday not to hold a special session to vote for the country’s next prime minister.
The statements from the speaker and palace marked a turnaround from the day before when interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, after meeting with the king, said the lower house of parliament would be called Monday to determine who had majority support to lead the country.
“His Majesty is also pleased with the decision made by the Speaker of the House of Representatives not to call a special meeting of the Dewan Rakyat on Monday, March 2, 2020,” the National Palace said in a statement Friday.
“The National Palace will contact leaders of political parties who have representatives in the Dewan Rakyat to give them an opportunity to put forward names of lawmakers as the future prime minister,” it said.
In a stunning turn of events, the former ruling Barisan Nasional bloc and dozens of MPs from Mahathir’s own Bersatu party joined in backing Muhyiddin Yassin, who served as home minister under Mahathir, as their choice for prime minister while it remained unclear whether Mahathir would be a candidate as well, according to statements.
“A meeting of the Members of Parliament of Bersatu today has decided to nominate Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of Bersatu and Member of Parliament of Pagoh, as the 8th Prime Minister, to the King,” Marzuki Yahya, Bersatu’s secretary-general, said in a statement.
The serious and low-profile Muhyiddin, 72, was the home affairs minister before Mahathir’s shock resignation on Monday brought about the collapse of the 94-year-old leader’s Pakatan government.
Muhyiddin’s nomination received the backing of constituent parties in Barisan Nasional, the coalition that dominated Malaysian politics for decades until its defeat in the 2018 general election, along with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
But according to Mahathir’s media adviser, Kadir Jasin, Muhyiddin’s nomination was not decided by the Bersatu party’s Supreme Council.
“As an explanation, the decision was not made by Bersatu. The supreme council was not brought in to deliberate or informed of the issue,” Kadir said in a Facebook post on Friday.
“The stance of the council is as per Monday’s meeting, in which Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad remains as the Prime Minister,” he added.
Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim, who had been anointed Mahathir’s eventual successor before their Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition swept to power in the 2018 polls, said that he too had the backing to become Malaysia’s 8th prime minister.
“Pakatan Harapan has the numbers. Let’s see out this democratic process,” Anwar, the president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), said in a Facebook post.
In a separate statement, Pakatan’s Presidential Council issued a statement saying it believed that Anwar had “received the largest number of nominations” from members of parliament.
“The President’s Council believes that the Pakatan Harapan candidate, Dato ’Seri Anwar Ibrahim should be given the opportunity to appear before His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to prove the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament,” the statement said, using the Malay term for the king.
As things stood on Friday, the parties supporting Muhyiddin for PM had gained control of 96 parliamentary seats, while Anwar’s side claimed it controlled at least 92 seats. A nominee for prime minister must command 112 seats to secure a majority needed to form a new government.
As for Mahathir, his status remained unclear late Friday. There were no statements issued by the interim prime minister or parties based in Malaysian Borneo that in the past have been kingmakers on the national political scene.
Attorney General quits
In other political news on Friday, Tommy Thomas resigned as Malaysia’s attorney general, he confirmed to BenarNews without stating a reason.
Thomas, was appointed by Mahathir in 2018 as the nation’s top prosecutor, and was the first member of Malaysia’s ethnic Indian minority to serve as attorney general.
Mahathir’s selection of Thomas, a Christian, spurred a backlash from rightwing Malay Muslims, who were concerned that his appointment would compromise the status and the rights of ethnic majority Malays and indigenous people, as well as the status of Islam as the federal religion.
Just last week, Thomas announced that his office was dropping all charges against two lawmakers and 10 others, who faced allegations of supporting the Sri Lankan rebel group Tamil Tigers, saying there was “no realistic prospect” that any of the accused would be convicted.
Muhyiddin, who was still home minister when the attorney general dropped those charges on Feb. 21, criticized Thomas’s decision, while PAS, the conservative Muslim party called on Thomas to resign, reports said. The faith-based party also threatened to hold a public rally if the government didn’t dismiss Thomas and reinstate the charges against the 12 men in the Tamil Tiger case.
Analyst: Muhyiddin seen as ‘Malay first’
According to Mohd Faizal Musa, a research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization at the National University of Malaysia, the backing by PAS and Barisan for Muhyiddin to serve as the next prime minister was a “move to save a few political elites.”
Asked why Muhyiddin had received the endorsement of Barisan and PAS, Faizal told BenarNews, “Because he is always seen to be Malay first. Anwar has the endorsement from non-Malays. So that’s how it’s been portrayed.”
Earlier this week, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah spent two days holding individual interviews with almost every member of the 222-seat lower house of parliament, to determine who they supported to be appointed as prime minister, after Mahathir resigned as PM on Feb. 24.
That same day the king accepted Mahathir’s resignation, but then re-appointed him as the interim leader.
Under the constitution, the king has the discretion to appoint as prime minister an elected MP who commands majority support in the 222-seat parliament.
On Friday, the Speaker of Parliament, Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, rejected remarks made by Mahathir on Thursday.
Mahathir said then the king had told him that because his interviews with MPs had not resolved the issue of which MP could secure a distinct parliamentary majority, “he says that the right forum is the parliament.”
“So the Dewan Rakyat will be called on March 2 in order to determine who gets majority support in Dewan Rakyat to become the next PM. However, if the Parliament fails to find a person with the majority, we will have to go for a snap election,” Mahathir told reporters on Thursday.
The speaker said he had received a letter signed by the interim prime minister stating that the government had agreed for a special sitting of parliament on Monday.
“I found that the letter does not fulfil Standing Order 11(3) because it was not accompanied by a complete notice for the motion (to be debated),” Mohamad Ariff said in a statement.
“I am of the opinion that the special sitting could only happen after receiving an official decree from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) regarding the process of selecting a new prime minister,” he added.
Early on during the tumult caused by Mahathir’s resignation, Muhyiddin said that the Bersatu party was fully behind Mahathir as its choice for prime minister.
Muhyiddin had also served as deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Najib Razak, but was sacked from the post in 2015 after publically raising concerns over a financial scandal allegedly tying Najib to the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB, a state investment fund.
Both Mahathir and Muhyiddin later quit the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Barisan’s anchor party, and defected to the opposition to join an electoral campaign to remove Najib from power and rid the government of corruption. Najib now is facing 42 corruption-related charges stemming from the 1MDB affair.
When reports surfaced earlier this week that Muhyiddin was looking to ally with UMNO in a potential bid to form a new government, Mahathir signaled that he and his former home minister did not see eye to eye on that prospect.
“My position is, of course, I won’t accept UMNO as a component party. But Muhyiddin is a little bit more relaxed, quite prepared to accept them en bloc,” Mahathir said.