Malaysian king rejects Mahathir’s call as turmoil deepens

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Mahathir Mohamad

Malaysian interim leader Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference at his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Mahathir says Parliament will pick a new prime minister after the king failed to establish who has majority support following the collapse of the ruling coalition. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s king on Friday said he will let party leaders nominate prime ministerial candidates, rejecting interim leader Mahathir Mohamad’s call for a vote by Parliament to chose a new leader and deepening the country’s political turmoil following the collapse of the ruling coalition.

Mahathir, 94, who is seeking to return as prime minister for a third time, also suffered another blow after his Bersatu party switched allegiance and said it has decided to nominate its president as prime minister.

Mahathir on Thursday said the king would let the lower house of Parliament vote next Monday to elect a new prime minister and that snap elections would be called if there were an impasse. But the house speaker on Friday rejected Mahathir’s bid to hold a vote, saying it didn’t follow proper procedures and preempted an official decree from the king.

The palace later broke its silence, saying in a statement that the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, had taken note of the house speaker’s decision. It confirmed that the king had been unable to find a candidate with majority support to form a government after interviewing all 222 lawmakers, but said he would “continue to seek a solution in line with the federal constitution.”

The palace will now reach out to leaders of political parties to let them nominate candidates for the top job, it said.

A failed bid by Mahathir’s supporters to form a new government without his designated successor, Anwar Ibrahim, and Mahathir’s subsequent shock resignation on Monday broke apart the ruling alliance less than two years after it defeated a corruption-tainted coalition that had led the country for 61 years.

His Bersatu party ditched the alliance in a bid to form a new government with several opposition parties including the United Malays National Organization, the party of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial on corruption charges. But it flopped after Mahathir quit in protest of working with UMNO.

Mahathir is seeking to form a nonpartisan government if chosen as prime minister. Anwar is also vying to become leader, reviving their two decades-old political feud.

Anwar’s alliance said it believes he had the highest number of supporters during the king’s interviews with lawmakers and should be given a chance to prove to the king that he can obtain a majority.

But a third candidate has emerged in the fray. Bersatu said in a statement Friday that 36 lawmakers, including nearly a dozen who defected from Anwar’s party, have decided to support party President Muhyiddin Yassin instead of Mahathir as prime minister.

The move could potentially receive support from UMNO and a fundamentalist Islamic party that jointly control a quarter of the parliamentary seats and reject Mahathir’s unity government plan. Muhyiddin is seen by them as a more acceptable candidate because he is willing to work with UMNO.

Anwar’s camp is currently the biggest bloc, with control of 41% of the seats, 20 short of a simple majority,

The palace’s announcement came after a meeting of the Conference of Rulers, comprising nine ethnic Malay state rulers. Mahathir has a rocky relationship with the royals after stripping them of their power to veto legislation and removing their legal immunity during his first period as prime minister, which lasted 22 years until 2003.

“Mahathir has opened his political fight not only with UMNO and the parties led by Anwar but now the royalty. His power is weakening through this alienation, as this is also affecting his public support which is low,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.

Once a high-flying member in the ruling coalition, Anwar was sacked and later jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power after a power struggle with Mahathir in the 1990s. Anwar led a reform movement that helped build a fledgling opposition but was jailed a second time in 2014 on sodomy charges that he said were trumped up.

Mahathir later reconciled with Anwar amid anger over a massive graft scandal involving a state investment fund. They forged an alliance that won the 2018 election, ushering in the first change of government since independence from Britain in 1957.

The current political crisis was sparked in part by Mahathir’s refusal to set a time frame to hand over power to Anwar, as they had agreed in their election pact.

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