Muhyiddin Yassin waves as he arrives at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on August 16, 2021, to announce his resignation. The politicking has begun to find his successor without holding new elections. Photo: AFP / Arif Kartono

SINGAPORE – With royal consultations underway to determine who will lead Malaysia’s third government in as many years following Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation on Monday (August 16), Malaysians are bound to be struck with deja vu as aspirants for the top job once again race to form a governing majority.

Muhyiddin is set to stay on as a caretaker prime minister until Malaysia’s king determines his replacement. But the nation is now without a government as it contends with Southeast Asia’s highest per capita rate of Covid-19 infections and deaths, and the mounting economic costs of its prolonged political turmoil.

Nor is there a clear successor in sight given that no politician or political party is known to have clinched the majority support of legislators in Parliament. Amid the uncertainty over which parties could form the next government and whether it would even be viable, Muhyiddin could conceivably serve in a caretaker capacity for months until new elections can be safely held.

Among his most likely successors is former deputy premier Ismail Sabri Yaakob, opposition leader and long-time prime ministerial hopeful Anwar Ibrahim, and 11-term veteran lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who could emerge as a compromise candidate amid a factional split between supporters and opponents of the outgoing premier.

The Istana Negara, or national palace, has said it does not favor dissolving Parliament or calling for a general election given the severity of the country’s Covid-19 crisis as daily cases exceed 20,000. Political party leaders, therefore, met with the constitutional monarch on Tuesday (August 17) to begin the process of selecting a new prime minister.

Speaking after his audience with the king, Pakatan Harapan (PH) chairman Anwar told reporters on Tuesday that the monarch had urged top politicians to unite and forge “a new form of politics that is more peaceful and harmonious” to confront the Covid-19 crisis, and that there was a consensus among the party leaders present to “stop old politics.”

Malaysia has been politically unstable since the engineered collapse of the reformist PH government in February 2020, which set off a week-long scramble for political power in which 74-year-old Muhyiddin emerged victorious after garnering the support of more than half of elected lawmakers, leading to his appointment as the country’s eighth prime minister. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press soon after becoming prime minister, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Mohd Daud

But legitimacy questions dogged his controversial tenure from the start given that Muhyiddin had shifted allegiances, abandoning his democratically-elected PH allies to form his Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition with support from corruption-accused leaders of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) defeated in 2018 elections.

Less than 18 months after assuming power, Muhyiddin was ultimately betrayed by the same people he conspired with, becoming the country’s shortest-serving leader, one whose time in office was marked by unprecedented health and economic crises that critics say were worsened by persistent infighting within his ruling PN coalition.

After a failed bid to unseat Muhyiddin last September, Anwar is hoping to restore the electoral mandate of his ousted reformist bloc. Twice jailed on politicized sodomy charges, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president was twice previously in line to succeed two-time former premier Mahathir Mohamad, but was sacked as his deputy in 1998 and side-lined by his unanticipated resignation last year.

Winning the support of 111 among 220 lawmakers would constitute a simple majority needed to form a government, though recent events in Malaysia have demonstrated how quickly a prime minister’s hold on power can be eroded. A faction of 15 UMNO legislators withdrew their support for the premier earlier this month, leaving Muhyiddin with an estimated plurality of only 100 lawmakers. 

Analysts say Anwar in particular has a steep hill to climb. Even if the opposition chief can secure the unanimous support of independents and non-PH opposition parties, he would have approximately 105 lawmakers in his corner and would require additional support from either UMNO’s 15-member anti-Muhyiddin faction or from among his PN backers.

In an encouraging turnaround for Anwar, both Warisan Sabah (Warisan) led by fellow prime ministerial aspirant Shafie Apdal and Mahathir’s Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) parties have said they would be prepared to support an Anwar-led premiership if he is able to forge a sufficient majority, buttressing PH’s count of 89 legislators with an additional twelve.

Leaders of Warisan and Pejuang have been critical of Anwar’s leadership in the recent past, and both qualified their offer of support on the condition that PH refuses to accept backing from UMNO’s 15-member faction, referred to by many as the “court cluster”, led by UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and criminally convicted former premier Najib Razak.

Malaysian opposition leader and prime ministerial aspirant Anwar Ibrahim in a file photo. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Zahim Mohd

The pair served as deputy prime minister and prime minister respectively when UMNO lost power in the historic 2018 election following the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal, and could spend their lives in prison if found guilty of dozens of criminal charges involving money laundering, abuse of power, and other offenses.

Critics contend that their primary reason for initially supporting Muhyiddin was the belief that a prime minister reliant on UMNO’s support would intervene to derail the two tainted politician’s court cases. But with Najib found guilty last July in the first of five trials, it became apparent that the PN government intended to allow the judiciary to operate unhindered.

Muhyiddin said as much, repeatedly referring to political threats from “kleptocrats” in his final days in office. He claimed that his refusal to squash their corruption charges was the real reason their faction withdrew its support for his premiership, as he promised reforms in an unsuccessful last-ditch appeal for support from the opposition allies he betrayed.

Bitter divisions within UMNO have persisted since Muhyiddin’s resignation, and could potentially threaten to delay a smooth and timely power transition. Zahid’s rival, UMNO vice-president Ismail Sabri, has positioned himself to take over from Muhyiddin, who appointed him as deputy prime minister in early July without a formal endorsement by party leadership.

Ismail hails from the pro-Muhyiddin wing of UMNO made up of approximately 23 of UMNO’s total 38 lawmakers. Although the majority of party legislators are seen to be aligned with Ismail, Zahid wields control over the party’s supreme council, which is expected to put forth a prime ministerial candidate, and has attempted to pour water on his rival’s bid.

Analysts say Ismail is well-positioned to succeed Muhyiddin in a realigned PN administration that places UMNO at the head of government, which would nullify a key gripe among UMNO lawmakers that the once-dominant former ruling party had been reduced to playing second-fiddle to Muhyiddin’s smaller Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party.

Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said that strong opposition from within PN to Zahid, or any other legislator from his faction, taking power means that a candidate such as Ismail or former foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein would be palatable to Bersatu and its 31 legislators.

An UMNO premier would likely “have a key figure from Bersatu (but unlikely Muhyiddin) as deputy prime minister,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, the government would look very similar to the one that has been in power since March 2020, and the policy outlook would remain broadly the same – ethnonationalism with populist leanings.”

Ismail Sabri Yaakob could soon be Malaysia’s next prime minister. Photo: Facebook

Mumford added that such a configuration would be prone to the same political instability risks inherent to having a razor-thin legislative majority. If all PN and UMNO legislators – including Zahid’s camp – came together in support of a new UMNO-led PN administration, the government would have just 115 lawmakers in Parliament.

Mahathir’s Pejuang party has said it would be prepared to accept an Ismail-led government as long as Zahid’s faction is excluded, raising the possibility of other opposition figures following suit.

James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, believes Ismail could attempt a deal with Zahid’s faction in exchange for support. “It would either be a ‘discharge not amounting to acquittal’ or some sort of probation during the appeal process to make sure that Zahid, Najib and a few others will not spend any time in jail,” he said.

Another name being floated as a possible contender is 84-year-old veteran UMNO lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh, who has operated independently of Zahid’s leadership and is seen as capable of bridging the party’s divisions. He could also draw opposition support, but his past strident anti-Muhyiddin stances would likely mean that Bersatu lawmakers would not lend their backing.

Elected lawmakers have been asked to submit a declaration letter to the palace that “clearly and distinctly” identifies an individual they support to be the next premier no later than Wednesday afternoon, documents which the king, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, would then refer to as he determines whether any legislator can claim a majority.

According to the federal constitution, the king may appoint a candidate who in his opinion is most likely to command a majority in the Lower House. King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah previously interviewed each member of Parliament in February 2020 following the resignation of Mahathir in a vetting process to establish his successor.

“The Agong is going to want to appoint someone that he knows that can maintain a majority and will not lose it in a matter of weeks and will of course be able to implement the policies that the country needs at this point in time,” said Francis Hutchinson, coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The monarch’s majority determination would ultimately be “subjective,” and thus the most effective way to measure a candidate’s support would be through a vote in Parliament, the academic added. “A motion of confidence would really boost [the selected candidate] and make him the uncontested leader of the country,” said Hutchinson.

Just as Muhyiddin was the second consecutive premier to resign as a result of an eroded majority, the next prime minister would be the second consecutive leader to be selected through declarations of support rather than an election, underscoring the palace’s broader exercise of political power since last year’s toppling of the PH government through defections.

“During the post-independence period, parliamentary leaders had very large majorities. The role of the king was relatively circumscribed and it was relatively ceremonial. But now, in a situation where you have very narrow majorities, the power and the authority of the king is much more expansive than it used to be in the past,” Hutchinson added.

King of Malaysia Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah stands in front of his larger-than-life image, July 10, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Syaiful Redzuan

With none of the various political permutations offering the array of prime ministerial hopefuls a clear path to Putrajaya, Muhyiddin isn’t ready to resign himself to fate. In an interview with local news editors after stepping down, he signaled the possibility of being reappointed as the prime minister or standing in the next election.

Stating that he was currently unsure of whether to offer himself as a candidate, the fallen premier strongly hinted that he would do so while saying his primary focus would be on consolidating the strength of his PN coalition. Muhyiddin also claimed that he continued to command the largest plurality of support among lawmakers.

Bersatu’s supreme council has said it does not discount Muhyiddin making a comeback, with one of its members suggesting that a confidence and supply agreement could still be inked with opposition legislators, some of whom have expressed public concerns that “kleptocrats” could be returned to power in the wake of his resignation.

As a caretaker prime minister, Muhyiddin’s current role is limited to supervising the functions of ministries until a replacement can be appointed and sworn in. He is unable to enact major decisions and can only proceed according to the policies or decisions made by his own previous government, but some analysts think this could be an advantage.

If no candidate can secure a majority, “the king could opt for a caretaker government to bring the pandemic under control so that there can be an election soon after, letting the people decide the political future of their country,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore

“Muhyiddin, even while resigning, is still prime minister of the country, albeit a caretaker. He is relieved of the burden of conjuring up a parliamentary majority, and can now focus on battling the pandemic, which is what the people of Malaysia would want,” said the analyst, who like others does not rule out Muhyiddin returning to power as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister.