Malaysia’s Mahathir loses PM race, scandal-plagued party returns

KAULA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad lost a power struggle Saturday with a little-known ex-interior minister to be the country’s new leader in a shock twist that will return a scandal-plagued party to power.

Muhyiddin Yassin’s surprise victory not only sidelines Mahathir, who had been the world’s oldest premier at 94, but also dashes the hopes of Anwar Ibrahim of becoming leader any time soon.

A royal statement said Muhyiddin was chosen by the king, who appoints the country’s premiers after deciding who commands most support from MPs, following the collapse of a reformist ruling coalition last week.

Mahathir and Anwar’s “Pact of Hope” alliance stormed to a historic victory in 2018 that broke the six-decade stranglehold on power of a corruption-riddled coalition, but it was riven by infighting over who should succeed Mahathir.

Tensions exploded last week after a failed bid to push out Anwar and stop him becoming leader — prompting the government’s collapse and Mahathir’s shock resignation.

The victory of Muhyiddin and his coalition, which is dominated by the multi-ethnic country’s Muslim majority, dashed hopes that the reformist alliance had secured enough support to return to power and is likely to spark much public anger.

Not only does it remove a democratically elected government but it also signals the return to power of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the scandal-plagued party of disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak.

UMNO was the lynchpin of a long-ruling coalition toppled from power at historic elections two years ago amid allegations Najib and his cronies looted state fund 1MDB. Najib is now on trial for corruption.

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His coalition also includes the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a hardline outfit pushing for tougher Islamic laws in Malaysia.

Addressing supporters outside his Kuala Lumpur house, Muhyiddin said: “I urge all Malaysians to take the decision that has been made by the palace today well. Pray that we will succeed for a greater Malaysia in the future”.

The palace said earlier that appointing a prime minister could not be delayed as the country “needs a government for the well-being of the people”, and that Muhyiddin would be sworn in Sunday.

But James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said he was “very surprised” that Muhyiddin got the job.

“It is very bad news for the country,” he told AFP. “One of the parties in this government is the fundamentalist PAS and they want to establish an Islamic state.”

Malaysia has a history of tense relations between the country’s different races and religions. Sixty percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims but it is also home to substantial ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.

The political crisis began when a group of ruling coalition lawmakers joined forces with opposition parties in a bid to form a new government without Anwar and stop him becoming premier.

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After the government fell, Mahathir was appointed premier and he and Anwar initially launched rival bids for power, reviving a rivalry that has shaped politics for more than two decades in the Southeast Asian nation.

But as Muhyiddin’s bid quickly gained support and it became clear that he could get into power with UMNO, Mahathir and Anwar did a volte-face and joined forces again on Saturday.

The remaining parties from the “Pact of Hope” alliance threw their support behind Mahathir to become premier, and there had been hopes he could stop Muhyiddin — but it was too little, too late.

The “Pact of Hope”, a ragtag band of opposition groups that included a party dominated by the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, Anwar’s People’s Justice Party and Mahathir’s Malay-dominated outfit, was uneasy from the start.

Mahathir had pledged to eventually hand the premiership to Anwar, but many were sceptical he wanted to give power to his old rival.

The alliance saw its popularity fall rapidly as it faced criticism it was not doing enough to protect Muslims’ rights, and it lost a string of local elections.

Muhyiddin, 72, was a member of UMNO for many decades and held a string of senior posts. He was deputy prime minister in Najib’s government, but Najib sacked him after he voiced criticism of the 1MDB scandal.

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