Updated at 10:52 a.m. ET on 2020-02-29
Malaysia’s king has appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as the nation’s 8th prime minister, the National Palace said Saturday, just one day after the former home affairs minister emerged as a contender backed by members of the scandal-ridden regime he helped topple two years ago.
However, in a late night statement, interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed that he commanded the support of at least 114 MPs, and said he would write to the king to inform him of the latest developments.
The shock palace announcement had initially appeared to quash a bid by Mahathir to return to the post, after he resigned a week ago and was appointed caretaker prime minister.
Muhyiddin, 72, president of the Malay-based Bersatu party he co-founded with Mahathir, was to be sworn in Sunday at 10.30 a.m., the comptroller of the Royal Household, Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, announced Saturday in a statement.
“After receiving representatives from all leaders representing their respective parties as well as independent lawmakers, His Royal Highness is of the opinion that the lawmaker who may be able to gain the confidence of the majority of lawmakers is Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the MP from Pagoh," the statement said.
"His Majesty decrees that the appointment of the prime minister cannot be delayed as the country needs a government for the well-being of its people and the country we love,” it said.
Twists and turns
Confusion over Muhyiddin’s appointment came after a week of political crisis with twists and turns by the hour that kept the nation riveted.
It was triggered by Mahathir’s resignation on Monday, which automatically dissolved the government. Mahathir was promptly re-appointed interim prime minister by the king.
Under the constitution, the king has the discretion to appoint an MP who commands the majority support of elected members of the 222-seat lower house of parliament.
A candidate needs to have a minimum support of 112 MPs to be appointed prime minister.
About four hours after the palace statement, video streamed on Facebook by the communications director for Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) showed lawmakers signing a document in a jovial atmosphere while Mahathir, clad in a grey jacket and blue tie, looked on.
"We have 114 members of parliament. One-one-four," Fahmi Fadzil said, as people in the room applauded and said "Viva Tun!"
In a statement shortly after, Mahathir, 94, said he would explain the situation to the king.
“At present, I have received a total of 114 members of parliament who support Tun Dr. Mahathir as the 8th prime minister,” the statement said.
“I have prepared a letter to be sent to High Royal Highness explaining this matter … I hope his majesty will receive my letter and explanation,” Mahathir said.
Earlier Saturday, in his first statement as prime minister-designate, Muhyiddin said he was backed by a new “National Alliance” of lawmakers from Bersatu, the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, the Islamist PAS party, lawmakers from Sarawak in eastern Malaysia, and independents.
“It has been confirmed that I am the 8th prime minister of Malaysia. I thank the king for appointing me the prime minister,” he told reporters at his home.
“This is undoubtedly a historic moment, more so due to the support of all MPs especially from the National Alliance coalition…giving us the sufficient numbers. We have a majority,” he said.
Muhyiddin’s appointment came on the same day that the Pakatan Harapan coalition named Mahathir as their new candidate for prime minister, after having ditched him earlier in the week for Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar, 72, was Pakatan’s candidate for prime minister from Wednesday to Friday, with its leadership council claiming that he had received the “largest number of nominations” from members of parliament.
Sources close to Pakatan told BenarNews that Anwar and leaders of component parties of Pakatan approached Mahathir late Friday after they discovered this was not the case, and as Muhyiddin emerged as a contender.
The Pakatan government had collapsed when Mahathir rejected plans from renegades in his ruling coalition, including Muhyiddin, who wanted to forge a new coalition with the former ruling UMNO party while keeping Mahathir as prime minister.
Mahathir has rejected that coalition as he regards UMNO as “kleptocratic.”
The Pakatan Harapan or Alliance of Hope bloc comprises Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-racial PKR, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), the moderate Muslim Amanah party, and Bersatu members still loyal to Mahathir.
In May 2018, Mahathir and his Pakatan allies pulled off a general election victory, which devastated a coalition that had led Malaysia for 61 years.
Leading figures from the last government including ex-prime minister Najib Razak, his wife Rosmah Mansor and former home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were subsequently put on trial for abuse of power and corruption for allegedly siphoning huge sums of money from a state-owned development fund, 1MDB, and other charges.
Mahathir had pledged during the electoral campaign to clean up government and install one that reflected the nation’s diversity, and that he would hand over power to Anwar, his former arch nemesis.
He joined forces with Anwar, whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge, after leaving the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the anchor party in the ruling bloc that had dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain in 1957.
In the run-up to the 2018 general election, Anwar, who was then in prison on a sodomy conviction, formed a pact with Mahathir, in which Mahathir agreed to hand the reins of government to Anwar – an arrangement endorsed by voters in the Pakatan victory.
After the election, Anwar received a royal pardon, was freed from prison and later elected to parliament in a by-election.
But tensions over when and whether the handover of power should take place were one factor in the collapse of the ruling coalition, according to multiple accounts.
Muzliza Mustafa, Hadi Azmi, Nisha David and Noah Lee contributed to this report.