KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s king called for an end to political bickering at a meeting Tuesday with party leaders as he began the process of selecting a new prime minister amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday after less than 18 months in office followed mounting public anger over what was widely perceived as his government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, with daily cases breaching 20,000 this month despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June.
The king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, has ruled out a new general election because many parts of the country are COVID-19 red zones and health facilities are inadequate.
Muhyiddin was appointed caretaker prime minister until a successor is found.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was among eight party leaders summoned for a group meeting at the palace, said the king urged them to end their bickering. The monarch stressed that the new leader should not be vindictive and that all parties must cooperate in tackling the pandemic and reviving the economy, he said.
“The issue here is not about appointing a new prime minister but more importantly, his majesty ... stressed the need to forge a new political landscape that is more peaceful for the people," Anwar told reporters outside the palace.
All party leaders in Muhyiddin's alliance and the opposition expressed their opinions during the meeting and there appeared to be a consensus to “drop the old style of tired and boring politics and focus on developing the nation," he said.
The king plays a largely ceremonial role but appoints the person he believes has majority support of Parliament to be prime minister.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the collapse of the reformist government that won 2018 elections. With a razor-thin majority in Parliament and an unstable coalition, he became the country’s shortest-ruling leader.
The king also asked all lawmakers to individually submit the name of a preferred candidate for prime minister by Wednesday.
This is somewhat similar to how the king picked Muhyiddin last year. The monarch interviewed all 222 lawmakers individually, then sought nominations from party leaders in an arduous process. His choice of Muhyiddin was disputed by the person he ousted, Mahathir Mohamad, and by the opposition.
The selection this time will be another tough chore for the monarch because no coalition hold a majority. Anwar's three-party alliance, the biggest opposition bloc, has nominated Anwar but has less than 90 lawmakers, short of the 111 needed for a simple majority. That’s also less than the 100 lawmakers believed to have backed Muhyiddin.
Anwar received a boost Tuesday when a party from eastern Sabah state with eight lawmakers said it would throw its support behind him if he is able to secure enough numbers.
Other contenders include former Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri from UMNO, the biggest party in Muhyiddin's alliance with 38 lawmakers. But he may not get his party's backing because he earlier led a faction backing Muhyiddin against the party's decision to pull its support.
Local media said another possible candidate is Razaleigh Hamzah, an 84-year-old prince who was a former finance minister. Razaleigh, also a UMNO lawmaker, is seen as a neutral candidate who could unite the party's warring factions.
Meanwhile, Mahathir, 96, has called for a national recovery council to be formed and led mainly by professionals to resolve the country’s economic and health crises.
The Bersih electoral reform group urged contenders to pursue political stability by offering multiparty governance and institutional reforms, and not just conduct horse-trading over numbers and positions.
“The endless political machination due to winner-takes-all politics in a de facto hung Parliament for the past one and a half years must now end to enable a more effective governance of health and economy. The new Prime Minister must quickly convene a special meeting and table a motion of confidence in himself to prove his majority,” it said in a statement.
It warned that a short-sighted and self-serving government would be punished by voters in the next election.
Associated Press video journalist Syawalludin Zain contributed to this report.