By Hadi Azmi and S. Adie Zul
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin turned in his resignation on Monday but will remain the government’s caretaker leader until the king, who ruled out national elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, names a new PM, palace officials said.
Leaders of all political parties meanwhile have been summoned to the National Palace for an audience with the monarch on Tuesday, according to a source close to the palace who said he was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity.
On Monday, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah accepted a series of resignations after the prime minister met with him at the National Palace, the Comptroller of the Royal Household said in a statement.
“His Majesty accepted the resignation letter of (Muhyiddin) and his entire cabinet effective immediately today,” comptroller and palace spokesman Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin said.
“Following this resignation, His Majesty has agreed that Muhyiddin Yassin carry out his task as a caretaker prime minister until a new prime minister is appointed.”
As caretaker, Muhyiddin will have no cabinet but will act as prime minister and advise the king until Muhyiddin’s successor is named – the same process that was in place when his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, resigned in February 2020.
The king did not set a timeline for naming the new prime minister, but noted this would be the best option as fresh polls could not be held anytime soon because of a spike in coronavirus cases nationwide, the palace said.
The Election Commission had informed the king that 484 of Malaysia’s 613 state-level constituencies were considered “red zones” for COVID-19.
“As such, it is in His Majesty’s view that calling for the 15th General Election is not the best choice, considering factors of the well-being and safety of the public,” the palace spokesman said.
After meeting with the king, Muhyiddin blamed his administration’s downfall on “people who are greedily squabbling for power” instead of focusing on the plight of the people.
“I led the nation in a time of health and economic crisis that has never happened before. At the same time, I continued to be assailed from a political angle,” he said in a nationally televised address.
A political analyst, Awang Azman Awang Pawi, detailed the expected process to find Muhyiddin’s replacement.
“I believe His Majesty will interview all party leaders just as he did back in 2020 when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned, leading to the formation of this Muhyiddin-led government,” Awang Azman, an academic at Universiti Malaya, told BenarNews.
“He will appoint a candidate as prime minister after being satisfied and confident that the candidate has majority support in parliament.”
Whomever the king selects as prime minister should validate support from parliament by calling for a vote of confidence – something that Muhyiddin never did – the analyst said.
For Muhyiddin, bypassing such legislative action during his 17-month stint in office fueled persistent speculation about how many seats his government actually controlled in Malaysia’s 222-seat parliament.
“They should take a lesson from Perikatan Nasional which did not validate their support after being given a mandate to form the government,” Awang Azman said, referring to the coalition created by Muhyiddin to take power.
Tunku Mohar Tunku Mokhtar, a professor of political science at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said he could not rule out Muhyiddin eventually regaining the support of a majority of the MPs.
For now, prime minister “contenders from the Perikatan Nasional coalition include Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Hishammuddin Hussein from UMNO, Hamzah Zainuddin and Mohamed Azmin Ali of Bersatu seem to be cancelling each other,” Mokhtar told BenarNews. “Outside Perikatan, Anwar Ibrahim is the obvious choice, but he seems to be unable to garner enough support.”
But while Muhyiddin’s resignation has put an end to instability in the federal government, any delay in appointing a new prime minister could cause more turmoil, according to Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a political analyst at University Utara Malaysia.
“The political parties will need to nominate a candidate who has the majority support among the lawmakers and is acceptable to the king. This process should be completed within this week or the latest in two weeks because we need a new government to steer the country as we are still facing health and economic crises due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he told BenarNews.
In his view, it is important for the new government to be in place as soon as possible because a interim prime minister has limited power in running the government and will be judged by people ahead of the next general election.
“Another pressing matter is that the new government will have to work fast to prepare the 2022 budget which is usually tabled in parliament by the month of September,” Azizuddin said.
Last-ditch efforts failed
In an effort to save his government as faced calls to resign, Muhyiddin reached out to opposition members in a conciliatory move last Friday, hoping that his rivals would cooperate and allow him to lead the government until elections could take place. But they turned down a series of incentives and reforms that he was offering in exchange for their support, and insisted that he resign.
After resigning on Monday, Muhyiddin said he could have saved his position by working with “kleptocrats” and sacrificing his principles, but chose not to.
“I will never collude with the group of kleptocrats, stifling the freedom of the judiciary and sidelining the Federal Constitution just to remain in power,” Muhyiddin told the Malaysian people.
His comment appears to target a faction within Malay-centric political party United Malays National Organization led by UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Muhyiddin had relied on UMNO’s backing to receive the king’s support to take over as prime minister in March 2020, days after Mahathir resigned.
Najib and Zahid are standing trials on charges related to corruption and abuse of power and are among the 15 lawmakers in the party who pulled parliamentary support for Muhyiddin earlier this month. Charges against Najib are linked to the beleaguered state fund 1MDB from which at least $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) was stolen, prosecutors allege, in what U.S. justice officials described as the “worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times.”
Zahid on Monday called on MPs to work in establishing a stable government focused on the well-being of Malaysians. He also made a promise.
“For the interest of the people and country, know that it never crossed my mind to name myself a candidate for PM even though I am leading one of the biggest parties,” he said.
Anwar, leader of the opposition People’s Justice Party, welcome Muhyiddin’s decision to step aside.
“I urge all parties to remain calm and pray that Malaysia will come back strong in dealing with economic and health crisis. I thanked him for his service to the nation,” Anwar said in a statement.
Muhyiddin’s term as prime minister, 533 days, is the shortest in Malaysian history.