Malaysia’s king is moving swiftly to confirm a new prime minister, a day after Muhyiddin Yassin resigned his post amid rising criticisms of his government’s parlous response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has reportedly asked the 222 members of Malaysia’s lower house of parliament to submit a letter stating their choice of candidate to be the country’s next prime minister.
In a notice sent to all lawmakers, parliamentary speaker Azhar Azizan Harun said the declaration letters have to be submitted to the Istana Negara palace – via fax, email or the online messaging service WhatsApp – by 4 p.m. tomorrow.
“In undertaking the King’s decree, I am giving a notice to you to present one declaration letter that clearly states one lawmaker that has your confidence to become the 9th prime minister,” the speaker said in the letter, as reported by Reuters.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin announced his resignation after less than 18 months in office, making him Malaysia’s shortest-ruling leader. The move followed months of mounting public anger over his government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Malaysian leader’s apparent misuse of emergency powers for political ends.
Despite a seven-month state of emergency intended to flatten Malaysia’s curve, and a tightening of lockdowns since June, the country has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, with daily infections exceeding 20,000 this month.
Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah is also scheduled to meet today with the heads of the country’s main political parties in a bid to narrow down a candidate who he believes would be likely to command a majority in parliament.
While the king has ruled out holding a general election because of the risks posed by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, he said he would invoke his constitutional powers to appoint a prime minister. Muhyiddin will remain as caretaker prime minister until a successor is found and sworn into office.
In February of last year, when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned abruptly amid byzantine backroom maneuvering, the monarch met with lawmakers to seek their choices for the next leader. After a week of discussions, he settled on Muhyiddin, who had defected from Mahathir’s party Bersatu and formed a new coalition with several parties, including the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had lost the 2018 election.
But Muhyiddin has since limped along with a narrow parliamentary majority, fending off challenges from the both the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition that he helped topple from power, and from within UMNO, which has been unhappy about playing sidekick to Muhyiddin and Bersatu.
Exactly who will replace Muhyiddin as Malaysia’s next prime minister is hard to predict, as various potential horses are now nosing their way toward the starting line. Malaysiakini has a handy article examining the most likely candidates for the post.
Among the frontrunners from the UMNO camp are Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the deputy prime minister, current Foreign Minister Hashimuddin Hussein, and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a 47-year veteran of the party and a founding member of the Malaysian state energy firm Petronas. On the opposition side, perpetual political bridesmaid Anwar Ibrahim will make a bid for the leadership, but boasts the support of less than 90 lawmakers, short of the 111 needed for a simple majority.
But as Alifah Zainuddin noted in these pages yesterday, whoever succeeds Muhyiddin stands also to inherit his challenges and liabilities, which include not just the challenge of tackling the current COVID-19 surge, but of doing so as an unelected leader lacking any sort of popular mandate.
The past 18 months of weak, unelected, and illegitimate government have put Malaysia’s democratic system under considerable strain, as evidenced by the increasingly prominent interventions of the country’s monarch. Ultimately, questions of legitimacy will continue to hover over Malaysia’s government until the country is next able to conduct a general election.