Updated at 5:26 p.m. ET on 2020-02-25
Malaysia’s king announced Tuesday he was holding individual interviews with every member of parliament before choosing the next prime minister, a day after Mahathir Mohamad stunned the nation by resigning from the post.
But opposition parties and a prominent activist group called on the king to dissolve parliament to make way for a fresh election. They rejected a potential “unity government” after Mahathir said he was meeting with leaders of all major political parties.
In an extraordinary move, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah appeared Tuesday at the gates of the National Palace, and handed out fast food to waiting journalists, asking them for patience with the unprecedented interview process, which could last into Thursday.
“We are very concerned, yes, I know. Be patient. First of all, let me do my duty. I hope we will find the best solution for the country,” he told the throng of reporters.
“Just a small gesture for all of you,” said the king, who doled out hamburgers, French fries and drinks from McDonald’s.
On Monday, he accepted Mahathir’s resignation and his recommendation to dissolve the cabinet, but then appointed the 94-year-old as interim PM.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesman for the king said the country remained “in peace and order” despite the tumult around Mahathir’s sudden resignation and the collapse of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, when three dozen MPs pulled out from the political alliance.
“Article 42 and 43 states that the king will pick one of the members of parliament whom the Majesty thinks gets the highest majority in parliament as the prime minister,” Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin told reporters
“All MPs are invited for interview session with the king … three minutes have been allocated for each session,” he said, adding that 90 would be interviewed Tuesday.
Bernama, the state news agency, confirmed that the king had concluded the first round of individual meetings with parliamentarians by 6 p.m.
Fadillah Yusof, a lawmaker from Petra Jaya in Sarawak state, said MPs were given a form to select their choice for prime minister during their meeting with the king.
“I wrote Tun Dr. Mahathir’s name as the prime minister. No discussion, just a form to select who to be the prime minister,” he told reporters as he left the session.
Fadillah is a member of the United Traditional Bumiputera Party (PBB), which is aligned with Barisan Nasional.
Under normal circumstances, the prime minister is the candidate who has the support of at least 112 members of the 222-seat Malaysian parliament.
Mahathir was selected as prime minister after the Pakatan coalition swept to power in the 2018 general election. The bloc consisted of 50 MPs from the People’s Justice Party (PKR), 42 from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), 26 from Bersatu and 21 from other parties aligned with the coalition.
The prime minister, who led Bersatu, quit the party on Monday after it withdrew from Pakatan.
The opposition Barisan Nasional coalition included 39 MPs from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), 18 from the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and 26 from parties aligned with Barisan or independents, according to figures from parliament.
Back to business
While the king met with MPs at the palace, the Prime Minister’s Office released a photograph of Mahathir working at his desk in his new role as interim leader, in an apparent attempt to portray stability amid uncertainty.
"Just another day in the office," Mahathir said in a message posted on his Twitter feed.
It also said that Mahathir held meetings on Tuesday with leaders of virtually every political party.
Those included UMNO, the long-ruling party and anchor of the Barisan coalition, which Pakatan Harapan ousted in the historic 2018 election, and PAS, the conservative Muslim party.
Mahathir, a former UMNO member, defected to the Pakatan alliance to lead it in that election. The opposition bloc won it on a platform of ridding government of corruption.
Following those meetings, UMNO and PAS leaders, joined by officials of other opposition parties, called for new elections.
“We are not going to join the unity government as we cannot work with DAP. Return the mandate to the people, dissolve the parliament and let the people decide,” UMNO information chief Annuar Musa told reporters. “Unity government is a hypocrisy.”
Most of the members of the Democratic Action Party, a partner in the Pakatan alliance, are members of the ethnic Chinese minority and DAP advocates social justice and multi-racialism.
“Mahathir led four parties and it collapsed, what would happen if he led a 12-party coalition,” Annuar said. “It is not fair to the people and we will not join a unity government.”
Wee Ka Siong, an MP from Johor with the Malaysian Chinese Association party, also said the unity government would not work. MCA belongs to the Barisan coalition.
“A democracy without opposition cannot flourish,” he told reporters. “There needs to be checks and balances.”
Among the voices speaking out in favor of dissolving parliament to call fresh elections was the grassroots NGO Bersih 2.0 – otherwise known as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.
It issued a statement expressing concern over whether Mahathir was considering forming a unity government where, as Bersih described it, all major parties would be represented.
Such a government “goes against the spirit of democracy,” Bersih said. “Democracy is about allowing political parties with different ideologies to compete against each other for the right to govern and implement policies based on their ideologies.”
“A unity government would also mean there would be no opposition to the government of the day. There would be no parties to do effective check and balances, to hold the government accountable,” Bersih added.
Defectors support Mahathir
Meanwhile, a group of 11 People’s Justice Party defectors spoke out Tuesday in support of Mahathir maintaining power as prime minister. PKR is led by Anwar Ibrahim, who with Mahathir spearheaded the 2018 election upset and had been tagged to succeed him as prime minister before the end of the five-year term.
“We would like to reiterate our undivided support to Mahathir Mohamad as the prime minister for the full term. We have stressed this during a closed-door party meeting and also openly,” said the group led by former PKR Deputy President Mohamed Azmin Ali.
“Our action is based on the people’s aspiration for a stable government, strong unity and a focus on efforts to restore and generate strong economic growth.”
Also on Tuesday, leaders of what is left of Pakatan Harapan held a presidential council meeting.
Speaking afterward to journalists outside PKR headquarters in Petaling Jaya, two leaders of the National Trust Party (Amanah) said there was no need for new elections.
“No, we didn’t discuss fresh polls,” Amanah communications director Khalid Samad said about the meeting. “Why should we waste money on fresh polls when we can get a clear [majority]?”
The Pakatan council also reached an agreement on who to support to run the country.
“We have made a decision,” Amanah Deputy President Salahuddin Ayub said. “The decision will be announced tomorrow.”