Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on 2020-02-27
Malaysia’s king will ask parliament to vote for a new prime minister after two days of interviewing MPs failed to break the country’s political impasse, interim leader Mahathir Mohamad said Thursday.
If no candidate gets majority support, the sultan will call fresh elections, Mahathir said, after meeting with Malaysia’s ruler earlier in the day.
“As you know, the king has asked all MPs to make a statement … they have made statutory declarations … and for two days they did that,” Mahathir, 94, told a packed press conference in the administrative capital of Putrajaya during the launch of an economic stimulus package.
“The result is, they cannot find anybody with a distinct majority, and because he did not get a distinct majority, he says that the right forum is the parliament,” Mahathir said, referring to the king.
“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,” he said.
The National Palace did not issue a statement on Thursday but has called a meeting of its council of rulers for Friday morning.
One of the prime minister hopefuls, Anwar Ibrahim, suggested that Mahathir's announcement was "a challenge to the rights and privileges" of Malaysia's ruler.
"As we all know, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is scheduled to meet the Council of Rulers to discuss this matter. The presidential council urges all parties to respect the discretion and authority of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on this matter,” Anwar said in tweeting a statement issued by Pakatan Harapan, the political coalition he now heads after Mahathir withdrew from it.
Two or three candidates
The special vote and events during the past week are unprecedented in the history of the multi-racial country of 30 million, which gained independence from Britain in 1957.
Over the last two days, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah held individual interviews with almost every member of the 222-seat lower house of parliament, to determine who they support to be appointed as prime minister after Mahathir resigned as the country’s leader.
Mahathir was re-appointed as the interim PM after the king accepted his resignation on Monday.
Under the constitution, the king does not have the authority to call for elections on his own and can only act upon the advice of an interim, acting or caretaker prime minister, according to Malaysia’s foremost authority on constitutional law, Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi.
A source in Mahathir’s party told BenarNews there currently were two or three candidates for the premiership.
“The candidates are Dr. Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim and possibly Muhyiddin Yassin,” the source told BenarNews, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
Anwar, the president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), was Mahathir’s designated successor as prime minister, but tensions over whether and when he should assume power had roiled Malaysian politics for months.
Muhyiddin is president of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), and was home minister until Monday.
Mahathir told reporters he had discussed with Muhyiddin the possibility of his being Bersatu’s candidate for prime minister. Mahathir is Bersatu’s chairman, although he briefly stepped down from that post this week.
“If everybody chooses him (Muhyiddin), I’m okay,” Mahathir said.
Asked if Bersatu would be naming two candidates, Mahathir said that the party had not yet come to a decision.
Mahathir said that he and Muhyiddin had differing views on working with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s former ruling party.
“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.
‘A new experience’
Mahathir’s media adviser, Kadir Jasin, said the special parliament sitting was unprecedented.
“This is a new experience for Malaysia. But it also shows that there are systems in place to overcome the problems relating to the choice of a candidate for the prime minister … and to overcome political tussles amongst parties,” Kadir told BenarNews.
He added that Mahathir’s announcement of possible snap elections if the parliamentary vote failed to determine a new prime minister “proves wrong the allegations all these years that Mahathir is a dictator.”
During the 1990s Mahathir, as prime minister, and Anwar, as his deputy, were members of UMNO, the party that dominated Malaysian politics for decades. The two fell out then and Mahathir removed Anwar from the deputy’s post.
But in the run-up to the 2018 general election, they joined forces to lead the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in an effort to remove the UMNO-anchored Barisan Nasional bloc, led by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, from power.
Ahead of the polls two years ago, the Pakatan manifesto stated that Mahathir would hand power to Anwar, and it was this arrangement that voters endorsed in handing the opposition bloc its historic victory.
But in a live address on national TV on Wednesday, Mahathir said he had resigned from the post to give parliament an opportunity to decide who would replace him.
“If it’s true that I’m still supported, I’ll be back. Otherwise I will accept whoever is selected,” Mahathir said.
Whoever is chosen to serve as the next prime minister can appoint whoever he wants to fill posts in the new cabinet, Mahathir said.
“He can choose any member without ties to any party… (to be in the cabinet) as individuals and not looked upon as representatives of their party,” the interim leader said, adding that qualified independent candidates could also be considered for the next cabinet.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese-majority party belonging to the Pakatan bloc, said it was backing Anwar as a potential candidate for prime minister and resisting Mahathir’s call for a so-called “unity government,” according to the Asia Times.
“Mahathir [said] he wanted to form a ‘unity government of individuals.’ This means that only Mahathir will decide who will be cabinet ministers. DAP and other political parties will not be consulted in the process,” the news outlet quoted DAP lawmakers as saying.
Lim Kit Siang, the party's leader, spoke out strongly against the notion of a unity government.
“It is foolish and short-sighted to purportedly establish a national unity government by destroying the Pakatan Harapan Government,” he said in a statement Thursday.
“The ideal way to establish a national unity government is to build on the Pakatan Harapan coalition and convince other political parties and entities to come together in the larger interest of the nation to build a New Malaysia,” he added.
Pakatan council criticizes Mahathir
Meanwhile late Thursday, Pakatan’s Presidential Council held an emergency meeting after which it came out with a statement criticizing Mahathir’s public announcement about the upcoming special parliamentary session. Anwar posted excerpts from the same statement on his Twitter feed.
"The right and power to appoint a Prime Minister is in the hands of His Majesty,” the council said.
It was “unreasonable for the interim Prime Minister to precede His Majesty’s speech in this regard,” the statement said.
Mahathir’s move to announce the calling of the special session of parliament to elect the next PM posed a challenge to the rights and powers of the king, the Pakatan council alleged.
The council also urged “all parties to respect the discretion and authority of His Majesty the King in this matter.”