Speaker rejects Mahathir's call as Malaysia's turmoil grows

February 28, 2020

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Both Mahathir and Anwar are vying for the premiership, reviving their two decades-old political feud. — Reuters
Both Mahathir and Anwar are vying for the premiership, reviving their two decades-old political feud. — Reuters

The speaker of Malaysia's House rejected interim leader Mahathir Mohamad's call for a vote next week to chose a new premier, deepening the country's political turmoil after the ruling alliance collapsed this week.

Malaysia's nine ethnic Malay rulers are to meet on Friday to help resolve the wrangle.

Mahathir said on Thursday that King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah failed to find a candidate with majority support and will leave it to the lower house to vote. If there is an impasse, Mahathir said snap elections will be called.

But House speaker Mohamad Ariff Mohamad Yusof said a vote could only follow an official decree by the king and Mahathir's call for Parliament to meet didn't follow proper procedure.

As such, there will be no special sitting of the lower house on Monday, Mohamad Ariff said in a statement.

His stand echoes that of the former ruling alliance, now led by Mahathir's rival Anwar Ibrahim, and other political parties that only the king has the power to appoint the prime minister under the constitution. They also said Mahathir had jumped the gun ahead of an official announcement from the palace and the Conference of Rulers meeting.

A failed bid by Mahathir's supporters to form a new government without Anwar and Mahathir's shock resignation on Monday broke apart the ruling alliance less than two years after it defeated a corruption-tainted coalition that had led the country for 61 years.

Both Mahathir and Anwar are vying for the premiership, reviving their two decades-old political feud.

Mahathir has opened his political fight not only with UMNO and the parties led by Anwar but now the royalty. His power is weakening through this alienation, as this is also affecting his public support which is low,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.

UMNO refers to the United Malays National Organisation, the party of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial for corruption. Its leaders have called for fresh elections.

Mahathir, 94, is seeking to form a nonpartisan government if chosen as premier for a third time.

He has a rocky relationship with the royals after stripping the sultans of their power to veto legislation and removing their legal immunity during his first stint as premier, which lasted 22 years until 2003.

The nine rulers are seen as guardians of Islam and Malay traditions and have a big sway among Malay Muslims, who account for 60% of Malaysias 32 million people.

They elect one among themselves to be Malaysia's king under the world's only rotating monarchy system.

The king's role is largely ceremonial but his approval is needed to pass bills, appoint the prime minister and dissolve Parliament for general elections.

Anwar's camp, UMNO and other opposition parties have rejected Mahathir's unity government plan, which they said would only create a Mahathir government that was not accountable to the people and was unsustainable.

Once a high-flying member in the ruling coalition, Anwar was sacked and later jailed for sodomy and abuse of power after a power struggle with Mahathir in the 1990s. Anwar led a reform movement that helped build a fledgling opposition but jailed a second time in 2014 for sodomy charges that he said were trumped up.

Mahathir, who retired in 2003 after 22 years in power, reconciled with Anwar amid anger over a massive graft scandal involving a state investment fund.

They forged an alliance that won the 2018 election, ushering in the first change of government since independence from Britain in 1957.

The current political crisis was sparked in part by Mahathir's refusal to set a time frame to hand over power to Anwar as agreed under their election pact.

His Bersatu abandoned the alliance in a bid to form a new government with UMNO and several opposition parties but it flopped after Mahathir quit in protest of the plan to work with UMNO that he ousted in the 2018 polls.