By Amy Chew, Muzliza Mustafa and Hadi Azmi
A former home minister and one-time ally of Malaysia’s longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in by the king as the new prime minister on Sunday, as Mahathir questioned the move’s legitimacy, claiming that he had majority support in parliament and his candidacy had been ignored.
In a brief ceremony broadcast live, Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, took the oath of office before King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah, who chose him as premier “after receiving representatives from all leaders representing their respective parties, as well as independent lawmakers.”
Muhyiddin heads an alliance dominated by the multi-ethnic country’s Muslim majority, including the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party of corruption-tainted ex-premier Najib Razak, as well as the Islamist PAS party, which has been campaigning for stricter Islamic laws.
The new prime minister did not issue any statement about his vision for the country after taking the oath but his close ally and aide said the new government would strive for national unity, press freedom, judicial independence and political and other reforms, and that the graft trials of past leaders would continue without any political interference.
“We are committed to the national agenda to drive economic resilience, guarantee mutual prosperity, safeguard national security and sovereignty, strengthen people’s unity and enable institutional reform,” said Azmin Ali, a senior minister in the previous government who was instrumental in ousting Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition from power by joining ranks with Muhyiddin.
“Najib’s trial will go on … and for Rosmah and Zahid as well,” Khalid Jaafar, a strategist for Azmin, told BenarNews, referring to Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the former prime minister, and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the home affairs minister in Najib’s government.
He said there had been “no conditions, no deals” with UMNO, the anchor party of the ruling coalition that Mahathir defeated in 2018.
The country was relatively calm despite a past week of political turmoil.
Defying police warnings, about 100 people turned up in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday evening for a second day of protest against what some called a “backdoor government” and chanting as the “death of democracy,” according to reports.
Police said in a statement that a man had been held and three others were being investigated for social media posts that insulted the king and threatened public order.
The palace did not provide the number of elected representatives backing Muhyiddin, but Mahathir claimed he had statutory declarations of support from 114 members of Malaysia’s 222-seat lower house of parliament and demanded that a legislative meeting be held as soon as possible.
“We have the majority. We have 114 Members of Parliament who back us. But apparently that is being ignored,” Mahathir told a press conference before the swearing-in ceremony, which his Pakatan Harapan coalition boycotted.
Muhyiddin had pulled his Bersatu party, which he and Mahathir founded in 2016, out of the ruling coalition on Monday, triggering its collapse. Several MPs from Bersatu were being erroneously counted as supporters of the new prime minister, Mahathir charged.
The king had declined a requested meeting, Mahathir said, “so I don’t have the chance to tell the king that he [Muhyiddin] does not have the majority.”
Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition said in a statement that it had the backing of “112 members” in parliament – two less than what Mahathir had claimed – and called for the next legislative session to open as previously scheduled on March 9.
“This is an excellent opportunity to determine support for the Prime Minister and thus end the political crisis gripping the country,” the statement said.
Mahathir suggested that if parliament was not convened quickly, the number of elected representatives supporting his coalition could shrink, because his supporters could be wooed to back Muhyiddin’s government through offering of minister posts and other incentives.
“The rule of law no longer applies,” he charged.
The political crisis erupted after Mahathir’s resignation on Monday, which automatically dissolved the government. Mahathir was promptly re-appointed interim prime minister by the king.
Under the constitution, the king has the discretion to appoint an MP who commands the majority support of elected members of the 222-seat lower house of parliament.
Amid questions over whether Muhyiddin enjoys the support of the majority of MPs, Ambiga Sreenevasan, once president of the Malaysian Bar and now a social activist, suggested that he call for an emergency parliamentary sitting this week to resolve the issue amicably.
“It would not only be in his interests to do so, but it would also be in the overriding interests of the nation,” she said, according to online portal malaysiakini.
Parliamentary speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said he would discuss with Muhyiddin, who would clock in to work on Monday, whether a session would be held on March 9 as scheduled previously.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) said in a statement that it wanted the new government to “give the priority to improve the economy, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, improve the level of education and equal and fair development in [Peninsular Malaysia] as well as [east Malaysian states] Sabah and Sarawak and at the same time safeguarding the Federalism principle with the states.”
“PAS urges all Malaysians to maintain the peace and harmony among the multiracial society and propose that the government be fair and takes care of the well being of its people regardless of their race, beliefs and their political inclination.”