As the deadline for all lawmakers to submit the names of their preferred candidates to the palace, has passed, Malaysia’s king said Wednesday that the new prime minister he picks must swiftly seek a confidence vote in Parliament
Based on the lawmakers’ choices, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said he will pick a candidate he believes has majority support, but this must then be tested in Parliament. He is to chair a meeting of nine Malay state rulers on Friday to discuss the decision.
The monarch has ruled out a new general election because many parts of the country are COVID-19 red zones and health facilities are inadequate. Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned as prime minister on Monday after losing the backing of a majority in Parliament, has been appointed caretaker leader until a successor is selected.
Sultan Abdullah, who met with political party leaders on Tuesday, said he urged lawmakers to unite and halt the bickering that has disrupted the country’s administration for months amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The new leader “must work in hand with those who lost and all parties should be prepared to work as a team,” the king said in a statement. “In other words, the winner does not win it all while the losers do not lose it all.”
Muhyiddin departed after less than 18 months in office amid infighting in his alliance and mounting public anger over what was widely perceived as his government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June.
Malaysia reported a record 22,242 new cases on Wednesday, bringing its total to 1.46 million. Deaths have surged to more than 13,000.
The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
The race appeared to have been whittled down to two main candidates: former Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Muhyiddin appointed Ismail as his deputy in July in a bid to ease tensions with the United Malays National Organisation, the biggest party in his alliance. Ismail then led a faction in UMNO that defied a party order to pull support for the government. In the end, 15 UMNO lawmakers withdrew, causing the government which had a razor-thin majority to collapse.
Ismail, 61, appeared to be the frontrunner for the job after UMNO’s 38 lawmakers reportedly agreed to set aside differences at a meeting late Tuesday and back him as their candidate. Muhyiddin’s party and several others in his alliance have also voiced their support.
UMNO secretary-general Ahmad Maslan tweeted that “only one name will be sent as Prime Minister nominee,” that of Ismail. Another lawmaker, Azalina Othman, told local media that Ismail is believed to be able to muster the backing of at least 111 lawmakers, the number needed for a simple majority.
It appears tough for Anwar, 74, to reach 111 votes. His three-party alliance has 88 lawmakers and if all smaller opposition parties back him, he would still only have 105 votes.
Anwar was due to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before their reformist alliance collapsed in February 2020, sparked by the withdrawal of Muhyiddin’s party. Muhyiddin then formed a new government with corruption-tainted UMNO, which was ousted in 2018 elections, and several other parties.
If Ismail wins, it will essentially restore the rule of the former unpopular UMNO-led government. Some analysts said Ismail would be a poor choice because he is associated with the failings of Muhyiddin’s government.
“He carries the baggage of a failed government.” What Malaysians want is a clean break from unpopular policies of the past government. There is more a hint of continuity than a sharp departure if the premiership were to pass on to Ismail,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Malaysia’s University of Science.
It will also set the stage for increased politicking in UMNO as Ismail, who is now a vice president may later mount a challenge against the party president, he said.