KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia's king on Saturday appointed seasoned politician Muhyiddin Yassin as the country's new leader, trumping Mahathir Mohamad's bid to return to power after a week of political turmoil that followed his resignation as prime minister.
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.
The appointment of Muhyiddin, who heads Mahathir's Bersatu party, will ironically bring back to power the United Malays National Organization, which was ousted by Mahathir's alliance in a historic vote in May 2018. It also has stoked fears of rising Islamization with the inclusion of a fundamentalist Islamic party.
Bersatu pulled out of the ruling alliance this week, leading to the government's collapse. Mahathir quit to object to Bersatu's plan to work with UMNO. Several UMNO leaders, including disgraced ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, are on trial on corruption charges.
Mahathir, 94, had struck a deal early Saturday to work with his former Alliance of Hope led by rival Anwar Ibrahim to thwart Muhyiddin's plan and appeared to be on the verge of a victory as more lawmakers rejoined his camp.
But the palace announced later in the day that King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah believed that Muhyiddin had the support of a majority of the 222 lawmakers. Muhyiddin will be sworn in on Sunday.
The king decreed that “it was the best decision for all" and called for an end to the political turmoil, the palace statement said.
In a late night statement, Mahathir called out a bluff by Bersatu that it has support of all the party's lawmakers. He said he and five other Bersatu lawmakers didn't support Muhyiddin's candidacy. In all, Mahathir said he has the support of 114 lawmakers. He said he would write to the king with supporting evidence and hopes the monarch will hear him out.
If they fail, they can seek a vote of no-confidence against Muhyiddin when Parliament resumes March 9.
“This decision doesn't necessarily signal the end of the conflict," with many Malaysians angered by the betrayal of their vote for change in 2018, said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at Malaysia's University of Nottingham. “I think increasingly there'll be more calls for ... an election."
A few dozen Malaysians rallied Saturday night in the city to protest what they called “the death of democracy.”
Muhyiddin, 72, thanked his supporters and appealed to all sides to accept the king's decision.
Muhyiddin is a longtime politician who served in various ministries before being appointed as deputy prime minister when Najib took power in 2009. But he was sacked in 2015 after he criticized Najib’s handling of a massive corruption scandal at the 1MDB state investment fund.
He helped Mahathir in 2016 form Bersatu, which later teamed up with the Alliance of Hope with a pact that Mahathir would eventually hand over power to Anwar. Muhyiddin was the former home minister under the short-lived alliance but only took up the post months later following treatment for pancreatic cancer.
“I am very surprised that Muhyiddin got the job ... it is very bad news for the country," said James Chin, head of the Asia Institute at Australia's University of Tasmania. “One of the parties in this government is the fundamentalist Islamic party that wants to establish an Islamic state.”
The stunning turn of events capped a week of tumult and marked the end of the Alliance of Hope, less than two years after it ousted the UMNO-led coalition that had governed Malaysia since independence in 1957 but had become entangled in a widespread corruption scandal.
The alliance initially nominated Anwar as the next prime minister but reversed Saturday to support Mahathir's candidacy in order to block a bid by Muhyiddin's camp to form a “backdoor" government involving “kleptocrats and traitors."
That plan has now been formalized with the king's decree, after the monarch met leaders of all political parties earlier Saturday.
Following Mahathir's resignation this week, 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 the candidate has the majority of support.