Mahathir Gathers Support for Premier as King Queries Leaders

Yudith Ho

(Bloomberg) -- Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad won the backing of the coalition he abandoned earlier this week in a bid to regain the premiership, while the nation’s monarch surveyed party leaders to determine who should be the next prime minister.

In the latest twist to the country’s political deadlock, Mahathir declared he still had enough backing to become prime minister. The Pakatan Harapan alliance shifted their support to him from their leader Anwar Ibrahim, who signaled his approval of the on-again, off-again relationship by tweeting “it’s time to do the right thing.”

The support of some East Malaysian parties is also beginning to tip the balance in Mahathir’s favor, which is key as no side as of yet has the 112 parliament seats needed to form a majority. One lawmaker from Sarawak joined a party in Pakatan Harapan, while three Sabah parties with a total of 11 seats maintained their support for Mahathir. A coalition in Sarawak now with 18 seats haven’t declared their allegiance.

As the saga unfolds, Malaysia’s king on Saturday is holding a second round of talks with political leaders to seek a way out of the impasse. 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 the crisis and determine who has majority support from parliament to lead the country.

“Ultimately the call is with the king,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “The statement coming from there should be the resolution we need.”

Alliances among the country’s political parties -- divided largely on racial and religious lines -- have shifted at dizzying speeds all week. The government imploded less than halfway through its term after a power struggle boiled over on Monday and Mahathir resigned. The king made him interim prime minister while trying to determine the candidate who has enough support to be the country’s next leader.

As of Friday, after Bersatu named president Muhyiddin Yassin as its candidate, some opposition parties agreed to support him to be premier, raising the ire of others in the party who didn’t want to join forces with lawmakers from the other side of the aisle.

Mahathir, along with former minister and Bersatu lawmaker Syed Saddiq, said they won’t agree to join hands with the opposition groups as long as “corrupt” lawmakers are part of the equation. The opposition coalition includes the party of former premier Najib Razak, who faces multiple corruption charges and has denied wrongdoing.

The political turmoil has even led Attorney-General Tommy Thomas to tender his resignation. Thomas, who was appointed by Mahathir to prosecute Najib and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in cases linked to the 1MDB state fund, said he would consider rescinding his resignation if the 94-year-old remains as prime minister.

Politicians on both sides took to social media on Saturday morning to express their confidence in the candidates they are backing. Muhyiddin gave a short speech alongside opposition leaders before they headed to see the king, while some leaders of the Pakatan Harapan alliance portrayed relaxed stances of having breakfast while saying they are confident they have the numbers to get Mahathir through.

Lim Guan Eng, who was finance minister until Cabinet was dissolved earlier this week, hailed the Pakatan support of Mahathir as a “momentous decision that protects” the people’s mandate and the nation’s interests.

“Let the battle for Malaysia’s soul begin DEMOCRATS Vs KLEPTOCRATS!” he tweeted, referring to a term that has often been used to describe members of the coalition that ruled for six decades until 2018.

(Updates with East Malaysian parties declaring support for Mahathir)

--With assistance from Yantoultra Ngui, Anisah Shukry and Hadi Azmi.

To contact the reporter on this story: Yudith Ho in Kuala Lumpur at yho35@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at sadam2@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate

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