Malaysian parliament to pick new PM Monday

Malaysian parliament to pick new PM Monday

Malaysia's Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Thursday. (Reuters photo)
Malaysia's Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Thursday. (Reuters photo)

KULA LUMPUR: Malaysian lawmakers will meet on Monday to resolve the country’s political impasse after the king failed to find any candidate with a clear majority to become the next prime minister.

Elections will be called if no one gets majority support from the 222 members of parliament on March 2 to become premier, interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on Thursday. The United Malays National Organisation — the biggest opposition party — is already telling its leaders to prepare for polls, suggesting their lawmakers may not rally behind any candidate next week who’s not one of their own.

The Monday deadline sets the stage for several more days of political turmoil as those tussling for the premiership jostle for support from various coalitions and parties to gain the upper hand. At stake is control of an economy that’s growing at the slowest pace in a decade, with Mahathir announcing on Thursday a 20-billion-ringgit ($4.8-billion) stimulus package to counter the impact of the global coronavirus outbreak.

Mahathir, 94, met with the king earlier on Thursday, four days after resigning suddenly due to political bickering in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. The country’s sovereign typically plays a ceremonial role in Malaysia’s British-style system of government, but has been drawn in further this time to find a resolution to the political crisis.

"He cannot find anybody with a distinct majority," Mahathir said of the king, who had met lawmakers over two days to determine which leader has the most support. "And because he doesn’t get a distinct majority, he says that the right forum would be the parliament," known as Dewan Rakyat.

"However, if the Dewan Rakyat fails to find a person with the majority, then we will have to go for a snap election," Mahathir said.

Malaysia’s last general election was in May 2018, when Mahathir joined forces with long-time rival Anwar Ibrahim to lead Pakatan Harapan to a stunning victory, ousting an alliance in power for six decades. It sought to usher in a new era of transparency and good governance, and focused efforts on prosecuting former Prime Minister Najib Razak for corruption in the use of state funds.

But an internal battle of power between Mahathir and Anwar was never far from the surface. Mahathir repeatedly refused to set a firm date to hand over to Anwar as they agreed prior to the election, increasing tensions that led to the coalition’s collapse on Monday.

Mahathir resigned, but was appointed by the king as interim prime minister until a new leader emerges. He said Wednesday he would return to power if enough lawmakers back him, and wants to build a "government that doesn’t side with any party".

A so-called unity government looks difficult to assemble. Alliances are shifting among a range of political parties divided largely on racial and religious lines.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition, which Mahathir and his party left, now commands 92 seats, or 41%, of parliament and is backing Anwar as premier. Latest estimates show Mahathir has the backing of 46 lawmakers, or 21%, of parliament.

Mahathir said he refuses to work with the United Malays National Organisation or Umno, the party he once led and defected from, and which he later helped defeat in 2018. He said he’s willing to co-operate and accept support from individual UMNO lawmakers, but not the party as a whole.

Bersatu’s president, Muhyiddin Yassin, has no such reservations on working with Umno "en-bloc", Mahathir told reporters on Thursday. Muhyiddin, once also from Umno, was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister until he was dumped in July 2015 for undermining Najib during the 1MDB scandal.

"It depends on who he hates more," Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and professor at Sunway University, said of Mahathir. If "Umno insists on coming in as a party, then his hands would be tied. However, if he thinks that blocking Anwar is more important, then he could compromise."

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