Malaysia's king appoints seasoned politician Muhyiddin Yassin as new PM but Mahathir Mohamad says he has support of 114 lawmakers for a comeback as prime minister for a third time.

Malaysia's Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, February 27, 2020.
Malaysia's Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, February 27, 2020. (Reuters)

Malaysia's political crisis deepened on Saturday after 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad rejected a decision by the king to pick his rival as the next prime minister, insisting he had enough backing to return to the role.

Ex-interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin was earlier named for the job by the monarch, who appoints the country's premiers after deciding who has backing from MPs, signalling a defeat for Mahathir and the return of a scandal-plagued party to power.

But hours later, Mahathir challenged Muhyiddin's appointment. 

He named 114 lawmakers that support his bid for a comeback as prime minister for a third time, surpassing the 112 votes needed for a simple majority.

Week of turmoil

It capped a week of turmoil that began when Mahathir's "Pact of Hope" alliance collapsed and he resigned as prime minister following a bid by his rivals to form a new government and push out leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim.

Their alliance stormed to a historic victory in 2018 that broke the six-decade stranglehold on power of a corruption-riddled coalition, but it was riven by infighting over who should succeed the world's oldest leader.

The victory of Muhyiddin and his coalition, which is dominated by the country's ethnic Malay Muslim majority, was a shock as Mahathir had appeared to be in the lead, and it sparked widespread public anger.

Not only does the win remove a democratically elected government but it also signals the return to power of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the scandal-plagued party of disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak.

UMNO was the lynchpin of a long-ruling coalition toppled from power at historic elections two years ago amid allegations Najib and his cronies looted state fund 1MDB. Najib is now on trial for corruption.

The coalition also includes a hardline Muslim party pushing for tougher Islamic laws in Malaysia.

Addressing supporters outside his Kuala Lumpur house, Muhyiddin said, "I urge all Malaysians to take the decision that has been made by the palace today well."

The palace earlier said the king believed Muhyiddin had enough support and he would be sworn in on Sunday.

In this file photo taken on June 1, 2018, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and politician Anwar Ibrahim leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
In this file photo taken on June 1, 2018, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and politician Anwar Ibrahim leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. (AFP)

Unlikely alliance

Mahathir earlier said he met with leaders from Anwar's Alliance of Hope early Saturday and is “now confident that I have the numbers needed to garner majority support" in Parliament to return as prime minister for the third time.

Mahathir didn't make clear in the statement if he was restoring the former alliance, which won a stunning victory in May 2018 elections. That victory ousted a ruling coalition, once led by Mahathir, that had governed Malaysia since independence in 1957 but had become entangled in a widespread corruption scandal.

The unlikely alliance between Mahathir and Anwar, longtime rivals, crumbled Monday after Mahathir's Bersatu party quit in a bid to form a new government with several opposition parties. Mahathir resigned in protest of the plan, which would have required him to work with the governing alliance he ousted in the 2018 polls.

The Alliance of Hope initially nominated Anwar as the next prime minister but reversed Saturday to support Mahathir's candidacy. It condemned efforts to form a “backdoor government involving “kleptocrats and traitors."

“For the sake of defending the struggle, the Alliance of Hope expresses its full support for Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister,” it said.

The move is believed aimed at countering plans by Bersatu to revive its bid to build an ethnic Malay-centric government after the party on Friday backed its president Muhyiddin Yassin, instead of Mahathir, to become prime minister.

Muhyiddin is seen as a more acceptable candidate as he was willing to work with the United Malays National Organization, where several leaders including ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak are on trial for corruption charges.

Counter strike by Mahathir

UMNO and its allies, including a fundamentalist Islamic party with strong rural support, have thrown their support behind Muhyiddin, putting him as a frontrunner in the battle for power. Much depends on two parties on Borneo island, that holds a bloc of votes.

"Never bet against the old horse. It's counter strike by Mahathir," said James Chin, who heads the Asia Institute at Australia's University of Tasmania. 

“If Muhyiddin brings back UMNO into the government, it will be a tragedy for Malaysia. He will be bringing back corruption, racism, and Najib and the others may get off the hook."

Mahathir repeated Saturday that he is against any form of cooperation with UMNO but can accept individuals who leave the party. He rejected claims that he supported Muhyiddin's nomination.

Muhyiddin, 72, is a seasoned politician who was sacked by Najib as deputy prime minister in 2015 after he criticised Najib’s handling of a massive graft scandal at the 1MDB state investment fund.

He helped Mahathir in 2016 form Bersatu, which later teamed up with Anwar's Alliance of Hope with a pact that Mahathir would eventually handover power to Anwar. It is unclear if Mahathir will stick to that transition pact if he succeeds in another comeback.

After Mahathir resigned, the king dissolved the Cabinet and reappointed Mahathir as interim leader. The monarch then individually interviewed all 222 lawmakers but failed to establish a candidate with majority support.

Rather than holding a parliamentary vote to select a prime minister, the king normally appoints a nominated candidate if he is satisfied they have the majority of support.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies