KUALA LUMPUR: A scandal-plagued Malaysian party looked set yesterday to regain the country’s leadership that it lost at landmark elections three years ago, after the last prime minister resigned this week. Muhyiddin Yassin quit Monday after a turbulent 17 months in office when allies withdrew support, and amid mounting anger at his government’s handling of a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
With an election ruled out due to the pandemic, the king will pick the country’s next leader based on who commands majority support in parliament. Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was deputy premier in Muhyiddin’s coalition, has received the backing of most lawmakers, one of his supporters, MP Ahmad Maslan, said on Twitter.
The 61-year-old is a long-time member of United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and if his victory is confirmed it means the party will reclaim the premiership. UMNO was the lynchpin of a coalition that ruled Malaysia for six decades until losing power in 2018 amid a storm of corruption scandals. The party had already regained a foothold in power as part of the coalition that collapsed this week, but Muhyiddin himself is from a different group.
“People who voted for change in 2018 will not be looking favorably to his appointment, and it will be an unelected appointment,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham. “So you will see polarization continue.” Lawmakers supporting Ismail Sabri met the king at the national palace to confirm their support for him. An official announcement is expected Friday after a meeting of the country’s royals. UMNO was booted out of power after becoming embroiled in myriad graft cases, notably the 1MDB scandal.
Billions of dollars were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB in a fraud involving ex-leader Najib Razak, and spent on everything from a super-yacht to pricey artwork. Najib has been convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail, although he remains free pending an appeal. Analysts have warned that UMNO regaining the premiership could have implications for Najib’s case, and for several other MPs facing corruption charge. But Muhyiddin, whose coalition is backing Ismail Sabri, warned their support was conditional on him picking cabinet ministers who “have integrity… and are not facing criminal charges”.
Meanwhile, the other main contender for the premiership, long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, looks set to lose out. Following the 2018 polls, a reformist alliance headed by Mahathir Mohamad took power. But that government collapsed last year amid infighting, paving the way for Muhyiddin to take power without a vote. – AFP