Mahathir out as Umno-backed man named PM

Mahathir out as Umno-backed man named PM

Ex-interior minister to be sworn in on Sunday, Anwar's hopes dashed again

Former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters outside his residence in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday after being named prime minister by Malaysia’s king. (Reuters Photo)
Former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters outside his residence in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday after being named prime minister by Malaysia’s king. (Reuters Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad lost a power struggle Saturday with a little-known ex-interior minister named as the country's new prime minister in a surprise twist that returns a scandal-plagued party to power.

Muhyiddin Yassin will be sworn in as the country's new prime minister on Sunday, royal officials said, after a week of turmoil that followed the collapse of a reformist government and Mahathir's resignation as premier.

"The process to appoint the prime minister cannot be delayed because the country needs a government for the well-being of the people and the nation," the palace statement said. The king appoints the country's premier.

As well as ending the premiership of Mahathir, at 94 the world's oldest leader, it also means there will be little hope of his designated successor Anwar Ibrahim becoming prime minister.

The crisis began when Mahathir and Anwar's ruling Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope) alliance, which stormed to a historic victory in 2018 against a corrupt administration, collapsed a week ago.

On Saturday morning, Mahathir said he would stand for prime minister on behalf of the former ruling coalition, less than a week after he quit and plunged the country into political turmoil.

That meant that Mahathir reunited with on-off ally and long-term rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72, resuming a pact that swept their coalition to a surprise election victory in 2018.

The move was intended to avert a showdown between the men whose struggle has shaped Malaysian politics for two decades, but which risked sidelining both and returning to power the corruption-tarnished former ruling party they had defeated.

"I am now confident that I have the numbers needed to garner majority support," Mahathir said in a statement.

In a statement, their coalition said, "Pakatan Harapan states its full support towards Dr Mahathir as candidate for prime minister". Anwar posted the statement on Twitter in an apparent show of personal support.

The political futures of both men had appeared in doubt on Friday, with Anwar competing as a candidate in his own right and Mahathir finding little support for a unity government that would have strengthened his power.

A new alliance had formed behind Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, who had the backing of the old ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Islamist party PAS.

It was Umno's ruling coalition that Mahathir and Anwar united to drive from power in 2018 under then prime minister Najib Razak, who now faces graft charges.

Stopping Umno

"Pakatan only has one candidate that could win the support of the majority of the MPs, Mahathir, not Anwar," said analyst Adib Zalkapli of Bower Group Asia.

"Anwar will have to fight another day. Today is all about stopping Umno and PAS from returning to government."

Umno, which Mahathir led from 1981 to 2003 during a previous stint as prime minister, supports Malay nationalism.

Its fortunes have risen since its 2018 election defeat, with the Pakatan coalition losing five by-elections in the face of criticism from some Malay voters that it should do more to favour the biggest ethnic group in the country of 32 million.

Still in doubt, however, was Mahathir's backing from his own Bersatu party, which had swung behind Muhyiddin.

One member of Bersatu's ruling council said it still backed Mahathir, but later retracted the statement.

At the root of the squabble between Mahathir and Anwar has been the prime minister's pre-election promise to one day hand power to the younger man, though no date was ever set.

Neither Mahathir nor Pakatan Harapan made any mention of that promise on Saturday.

Anwar was Mahathir's deputy and a rising political star when Mahathir was prime minister the first time, but they fell out over how to tackle the Asian financial crisis.

Anwar was arrested and jailed in the late 1990s for sodomy and corruption, charges that he and his supporters denied, maintaining that they were aimed at ending his political career.

As well as personal relationships, politics in Malaysia is shaped by a tangle of ethnic, religious and regional interests. Malaysia is more than half ethnic Malay, but has large ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

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