A former interior minister was sworn in on Sunday as Malaysia’s premier, marking the return to power of a scandal-mired party after the fall of a reformist government but ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, 94, slammed the change as unconstitutional.
After Mahathir’s reformist coalition “Pact of Hope,” which marched to a historic victory in 2018, collapsed amid bitter infighting, the Southeast Asian nation was plunged into chaos.
Mahathir — who was the oldest leader in the world— started as prime minister, but then sought to return. He lost out, however, to the little-known Muhyiddin Yassin, who heads a coalition dominated by the Muslim Majori nation.
The King’s decision on Saturday to pick Muhyiddin as Premier was met with surprise as Mahathir’s allies claimed to have enough resources, and sparked widespread outrage over the ejection of the democratically elected government.
Just before Muhyiddin’s inauguration, Mahathir accused him of treason and said he would seek a parliamentary vote challenging the new prime minister’s support — a sign of the political crisis is far from over.
“This is a very strange thing[…] the losers will make up the government, the winners will be in the opposition,” he said.
“The rule of law no longer applies.”
Muhyiddin’s coalition includes the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party of disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak, as well as a hardline group that wants tougher Islamic laws.
UMNO was the cynical lynchpin of a coalition thrown out at the 2018 election in the wake of charges that Najib and his cronies pillaged billions of dollars from the 1MDB state fund. Najib is currently on trial for corruption.
Despite a last-minute bid by Mahathir to prove that he had enough support to return as premier, Muhyiddin’s inauguration went ahead Sunday morning at the national palace.
His alliance boycotted the ceremony.
To become premier, a candidate must prove to the king, who appoints the prime minister, that he has the backing of at least 112 MPs.
Meanwhile, there has been growing public outrage at the reformist alliance’s ejection, with the hashtag “NotMyPM” trend on Twitter, and more than 100,000 people signing a petition claiming the change was a “treaty” of voters ‘ preference at the 2018 election.
Mahathir — who served a first stint as Premier from 1981 to 2003 before making a comeback two years ago — also raised concerns that the government change would affect pending court cases against Najib linked to the 1MDB scandal.
Mahathir came out of retirement aged 92 to take on his one-time protege Najib over the controversy, and has pledged to bring him to justice.
Analysts said the government of Muhyiddin was in a weak position as it was not clear that he had a parliamentary majority and that he was a member of a small party without a large base of support.
After questioning the handling of the 1MDB case, he was a senior UMNO leader for decades before being sacked from the party by Najib in 2015 and then allied with Mahathir to oust them at the last elections.
In a volte-face, he joined hands last week with UMNO in his quest for the premiership — although he is not a member.
In addition, he lacks “the domestic legitimacy or the international legitimacy the previous government had”, Bridget Welsh, an analyst from the University of Nottingham, told AFP.
He is a Muslim nationalist — he once described himself controversially as “Malay first” and Malaysian second — and there are fears that his leadership in the multi-ethnic country could exacerbate already strained race and religious relations.
Approximately 60% of the population of Malaysia are ethnic Malay Muslims and the country is also home to large ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities.
The political crisis began a week ago when a group of ruling coalition legislators joined forces with opposition parties in an effort to form a new government and push out the designated successor of Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim.
In a week of fast-moving twists and turns, Mahathir and Anwar — who have a long, stormy history — shortly locked horns in a leadership battle.