New Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin signs documents after taking the oath as new national leader at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, March 1, 2020. Photo: AFP via Malaysia's Department of Information/Famer Roheni

KUALA LUMPUR – In a stunning outcome to a week of unprecedented political turbulence, former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on Sunday (March 1) after being appointed by the nation’s constitutional monarch.

The move forces out elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad, 94, who was elected prime minister in a historic May 2018 victory that unseated the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition but resigned on February 24 amid political machinations that aimed to deny the premiership to his promised successor Anwar Ibrahim.

Muhyiddin’s appointment by Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, installs a new coalition government without an electoral mandate and will effectively return the scandal-plagued United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party that was ousted at the ballot box less than two years ago to power.

Protests against Muhyiddin’s assumption of the premiership have already erupted, with activists criticizing the backdoor maneuvering of political elites they regard as unethical and unaccountable, a rally cry that could galvanize larger demonstrations in the days ahead.

There have already been street protests against Muhyiddin’s appointment, which many demonstrators already view as an anti-democratic intervention from above.

Mahathir resigned after Muhyiddin, president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, withdrew the party from the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and realigned with the graft-tainted leadership of UMNO, a move Mahathir adamantly opposed. 

Parties raced to fill the unprecedented power vacuum by trying to amass the minimum number of legislators – 112 of a total 222 elected members of Parliament – required to form a government, with Anwar briefly floated as PH’s candidate for premier after Mahathir pitched his own proposal to lead a “unity” government bringing together rival parties and individuals.

The latter plan floundered and was openly panned by PH legislators and critics as a bid by Mahathir, who ruled in authoritarian fashion from 1981-2003, to reassert and consolidate power.

Malaysian politicians Anwar Ibrahim (L) and Mahathir Mohamad (R) suddenly find themselves in the opposition. Photo: Twitter

The nonagenarian’s political fortunes were further dashed when the royal palace on February 28 rejected plans for a vote at a special sitting of Parliament Mahathir had announced a day earlier.

On February 29, Mahathir announced himself as PH’s candidate for prime minister in another surprise maneuver, disavowing support for Muhyiddin’s competing bid to head a new coalition in league with UMNO and its graft-tainted leadership.

UMNO’s president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and former prime minister Najib Razak, face dozens of corruption and money laundering charges and could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.

“I am against any form of cooperation with individuals who are known to be corrupt,” said Mahathir in a statement following his last ditch rapprochement with Anwar.

Shortly before Muhyiddin, a self-professed Malay nationalist, recited his oath at the national palace on Sunday morning, Mahathir told a press conference that PH still had majority support of Parliament’s legislators.

Despite having the numbers to form a coalition government, Malaysia’s monarch refused to grant him audience, Mahathir said.

“I feel betrayed, mostly by Muhyiddin. He was working on this for a long time and now he has succeeded,” Mahathir said in his first remarks as an opposition parliamentarian.

“The king has chosen to stop all communication with me. We are going to see a man who does not have majority support become prime minister.”

Malaysian artist and activist Fahmi Reza holds a caricature of Muhyiddin in ‘Joker’ makeup at a protest in Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, February 29, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

Mahathir also claimed that Muhyiddin’s appointment did not follow the rule of law. “The losers will form the government and the winners will be the opposition. It is a very strange situation,” said Mahathir in reference to the May 2018 election results.  

PH leaders had worked early into Sunday morning to obtain statutory declarations from legislators in support of Mahathir’s premiership, claiming a total of 115 signatures before the figure was revised to 113 after two lawmakers denied supporting the nonagenarian and publicly backed Muhyiddin. The tally was lowered to 112 by Sunday afternoon.  

Some constitutional experts argue that the Agong, who is responsible for appointing a premier who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of legislators, has the discretion to make that determination without relying solely on the number of lawmakers that pledge support for a given candidate.  

“I express my gratitude for the favor of God and that is why I express my gratitude to all who give me moral support,” said Muhyiddin after his appointment by the Agong was announced. “I only wish for all Malaysians to accept the decision made today by the Palace.”

“I suspect the reason the Agong appointed Muhyiddin as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia is that at the time of his decision, he had more MPs supporting him than Mahathir or Anwar, whilst the rest of the MPs preferred to be independent or non-aligned,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, an academic and political analyst.

“The Agong may have also felt that he needed to move quickly as there were pressing problems facing the country that would require an effective government to address,” he said. “But the political drama is by no means over. As a consequence, the chances of a no-confidence motion being tabled in the first seating of Parliament have increased,” he said.

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (L) receives documents from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (R) before taking the oath as new leader at the National Palace, Kuala Lumpur, March 1, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Malaysia’s Department of Information/Maszuandi Adnan

The next scheduled sitting of Parliament is set for March 9. If Muhyiddin loses a confidence vote, it will re-open the door for PH to form a government if it has majority support from lawmakers.

“Muhyiddin will likely only delay until he is able to get the majority so that he can either avert or withstand the vote of no confidence,” said Mustafa. “I don’t think he has the majority right now but will try through inducements to entice MPs to defect from PH.”

Muhyiddin’s new ruling coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), brings together PPBM with UMNO, the lynchpin of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, and Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which seeks to implement stricter sharia criminal laws in Malaysia.

A native of southern Johor state and one of PPBM’s founders, Muhyiddin served as deputy premier to Najib before being dropped from his cabinet following his open criticism of the latter’s handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy, statements he has said were made in the public interest.

The septuagenarian politician is known to keep a low profile and has extensive experience in state and national administrations, and has held various Cabinet positions.

In 2018, he was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer and took leave to seek chemotherapy. He ultimately recovered and resumed his duties as interior minister last August.

Muhyiddin, together with 55-year-old former economic affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali, who led a small faction which defected from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), are regarded as the engineers of the February 23 gambit now known as the “Sheraton Move” which aimed to form a “backdoor” coalition government with UMNO and PAS through defections.

While that initial attempt failed, those seen as being behind the maneuver have now come to power by royal decree.

“I support of a motion of no-confidence” reads a sign held up by an anti-Muhyiddin activist at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, February 29, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

“We are committed towards a national agenda that will spur the economy, ensure shared prosperity, protect the safety and sovereignty of the country, forge unity and ensure institutional reforms,” said Azmin. “My gratitude to God for our week-long struggle to form a new government was a success.”

A fracas unfolded outside PKR’s headquarters following Muhyiddin’s swearing-in as lawmakers and office bearers affiliated with Azmin were branded “traitors” and assaulted by party supporters as they left the building.

Activists and civil society groups, meanwhile, are in the midst of organizing rallies, with some demanding that Parliament be dissolved and new elections held.

“This is scary. This is a scary precedent. I don’t see how this isn’t a coup,” said 18-year-old activist Viktor Talisman, who addressed a crowd of demonstrators gathered in Dataran Merdeka or independence square for a peaceful protest on the eve of Muhyiddin’s inauguration.  

“Two years ago, we voted for the Pakatan Harapan government. People voted for Party A. Now Party B is swaying some MPs to their side and installing their own government, their own prime minister,” he told Asia Times. “I’m sad to say that this trajectory doesn’t look very good for us.”

Addressing members of the press and his supporters, Anwar said “clear treachery” had taken place, though he declared that PH would need to “move on.”

PN brings the three largest exclusively ethnic Malay Muslim parties together under a single banner in an apparent bid to appeal to the country’s largest and most important vote bank.

This is in contrast to PH, which presided over the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in Malaysian history after winning 95% of the ethnic Chinese vote.

Mohamed Azmin Ali (C) is a big political winner of Malaysia’s political realignment. Photo: Twitter

This outcome “is essentially a return to the Barisan Nasional (BN) days, but with PAS sitting inside the coalition rather than outside of it. This sort of government would be a credible steward of Malay interests indeed, but would face stiff opposition from non-Malay elements,” said Tom Pepinsky, associate professor at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program.

The addition of PAS to the governing coalition is a development that many across the multiethnic country will find disconcerting.

“Muhyiddin’s policies will be very conservative, even what you would call regressive, because you’re combining a racial supremacist party with a religious extremist party,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “It’s a very dark day in Malaysian history,” he added.  

Since its 2018 ouster, UMNO has seen its fortunes gradually reverse and rise. It won five by-election contests as it pushed a narrative that the country’s ethic Malay Muslim majority were losing constitutionally-mandated privileges under Mahathir’s government, which it accused of being a proxy for the ethnic Chinese majority Democratic Action Party (DAP).

With the return of UMNO politicians to the corridors of power, all eyes will quickly turn on whether the high-profile corruption trials of ex-premier Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and figures like Zahid initiated by PH will proceed under the leadership of a Muhyiddin-appointed attorney-general.

Tommy Thomas, an ethnic Indian Christian attorney-general appointed by Mahathir in June 2018, submitted his resignation letter on February 28 as the political crisis gripped Malaysia.

During his tenure, he relentlessly pursued 1MDB-related prosecutions. His successor, analysts note, will have powers to discontinue criminal proceedings or withdraw charges.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur, December 12, 2018 after being charged in court. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“The trials are likely to be discontinued. Whoever he (Muhyiddin) appoints as AG is likely to withdraw those prosecutions,” Oh believes. “It is Mahathir who brought this on, not PH. He was adamantly against passing on the baton to Anwar. He tried to play with fire, and the fire got out of hand.”

The Mahathir-to-Anwar succession problem “certainly contributes to the mess Malaysia faces today,” said Pepinsky. “But by not fixing a definite date for succession, it encouraged other parties, factions and interests to jockey for a power at some unspecified future date.

“The sudden and complete collapse of Malaysian governance could have been avoided,” he said.