Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, the world’s oldest serving leader, appears to have lost a high stakes battle for power after the country’s king on Saturday abruptly nominated a political rival to be the next prime minister.
The appointment of veteran Malaysian politician Muhyiddin Yassin as the next leader stunned analysts, who were expecting either Mr Mahathir or his longtime rival and sometime ally Anwar Ibrahim to emerge victorious from a week-long political crisis that started when the nonagenarian suddenly resigned from his position on Monday.
The royal palace on Saturday said in a statement the king had “decreed that the process of appointing a prime minister cannot be delayed”. Mr Muhyiddin — president of Mr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) — will be sworn in on Sunday morning on the basis that he has possibly secured a parliamentary majority, the statement said.
But in the latest turn of events, Mr Mahathir on Saturday evening requested an audience with the king, listing the names of 114 MPs who have signed statutory declarations backing him as the next prime minister (at least 112 seats are necessary for a majority). Mr Mahathir said six Bersatu members, including himself, do not support Mr Muhyiddin, making the numbers he offered the king “inaccurate”.
Malaysian politics for decades has been dominated by the rivalry between Mr Mahathir and former foe turned coalition ally Mr Anwar. After the pair confounded expectations to win elections and oust former leader Najib Razak in 2018, Mr Mahathir had promised to hand power to Mr Anwar after “one or two years”. But he went back on this pledge several times before saying he would step down after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Malaysia in November. Amid this long-running political feud, Mr Muhyiddin has come out as the winner.
The new appointment would mark the comeback of the United Malays National Organisation, which ruled Malaysia for six decades until it was thrown out in 2018 elections amid corruption scandals, and now backs Mr Muhyiddin. Umno stalwart Mr Najib is standing trial on charges linked to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. He maintains his innocence.
“Muhyiddin would lead a more overtly pro-ethnic Malay government characterised by social division, economic nationalism, and perhaps less fiscal restraint,” said Peter Mumford, head of south-east and south Asia at Eurasia Group.
Despite Saturday’s announcement, analysts caution there might be more surprises and question whether Mr Muhyiddin would survive a potential confidence vote.
Mr Muhyiddin’s appointment follows a weeklong political meltdown in Malaysia. Following Mr Mahathir’s resignation and appointment as interim prime minister, the king interviewed each of Malaysia’s 222 members of parliament to determine which potential leader could secure a majority in parliament. He then met each party head after Mr Mahathir’s request for a parliamentary sitting to pick the next prime minister was not met.
Party lines have also been redrawn several times. A few hours prior to the king’s announcement, Pakatan Harapan said it would back Mr Mahathir as the next prime minister, after proposing Mr Anwar earlier in the week. On Saturday, Mr Mahathir said he was standing as a prospective leader, “confident” he could secure parliamentary majority.
Mr Mahathir’s resignation followed talks last weekend between members of his coalition and opposition parties, widely seen as an attempt to form a new coalition to replace the Pakatan Harapan. Bersatu then left the ruling coalition while 11 MPs quit Mr Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) to form an independent unit.