Malaysia lawmakers blast Dr Mahathir for declaring call to vote

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KUALA LUMPUR (Feb 28): Malaysian lawmakers from across the political spectrum blasted Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for announcing a call for parliament to vote on a new leader, saying the move disrespected the country’s monarch.

Dr Mahathir said Thursday the king had failed to find a candidate with a clear majority in the 222-member parliament, and an election would be called if lawmakers couldn’t decide on a leader on March 2. The king had appointed Dr Mahathir as interim prime minister following his surprise resignation this week.

Yet several of Malaysia’s biggest political parties accused Dr Mahathir of pre-empting the king, who hasn’t made a public statement since he started speaking with lawmakers to determine who has a majority in parliament.

The country’s sovereign typically plays a ceremonial role in Malaysia’s British-style system of government, but has been drawn in further this time to resolve a crisis now in its fifth day. Royals from some of the country’s 13 states are also gathering with the king on Friday for a special meeting on the political crisis, the Star newspaper reported.

The backlash raises questions about whether Dr Mahathir, 94, miscalculated in abandoning a coalition that pulled off a shock election win in 2018, taking down a government that ruled consecutively for six decades. Joining hands with long-time rival Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir’s administration initially sought to usher in a new era of transparency and good governance, and focused efforts on prosecuting former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for corruption in the use of state funds.

But an internal battle of power between Dr Mahathir and Anwar was never far from the surface. Dr Mahathir repeatedly refused to set a firm date to hand over to Anwar as they agreed prior to the election, increasing tensions that led to the coalition’s collapse.

While Dr Mahathir was initially seen as a favorite to form a new coalition, he’s been publicly rebuked in the past few days by both his former allies and potential new partners. Whoever emerges victorious will inherit an economy growing at the slowest pace in a decade, with Dr Mahathir announcing on Thursday a RM20 billion stimulus package to counter the impact of the global coronavirus outbreak.

The United Malays National Organisation, or Umno — the biggest opposition party — asked all lawmakers to say no to Dr Mahathir’s special parliament sitting on March 2, Secretary-General Tan Sri Annuar Musa said on Twitter. Earlier it told its leaders to prepare for a fresh election, suggesting their lawmakers may not rally behind any candidate next week who’s not one of their own.

“It is unconstitutional, procedurally improper and disrespects” Malaysia’s king, Annuar said on Friday of the parliamentary meeting.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition, which Dr Mahathir and his party left, now commands 41% of parliament and is backing Anwar as premier. At an emergency meeting Thursday night, the coalition’s leaders said it was “unreasonable” for Dr Mahathir to proceed without letting the king, who has the right to appoint a prime minister, make the announcement.

Dr Mahathir said this week he would return to power if enough lawmakers back him, and wants to build a “government that doesn’t side with any party.” After meeting the king on Thursday, Dr Mahathir said the monarch couldn’t “find anybody with a distinct majority” and the king believed “that the right forum would be the parliament” to decide the next prime minister.

Dr Mahathir has said he refuses to work with Umno, the party he once led and defected from, and which he later helped defeat in 2018. But he said he’s willing to co-operate and accept support from individual Umno lawmakers.

A so-called unity government looks difficult for Dr Mahathir to assemble. Alliances are shifting among a range of political parties divided largely on racial and religious lines.

Bersatu’s president, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, has no such reservations on working with Umno “en-bloc,” Dr Mahathir told reporters on Thursday. Muhyiddin, once also from Umno, was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister until he was dumped in July 2015 for undermining Najib during the 1MDB scandal.

“It depends on who he hates more,” Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and professor at Sunway University, said of Dr Mahathir. If “Umno insists on coming in as a party, then his hands would be tied. However, if he thinks that blocking Anwar is more important, then he could compromise.”