Malaysia’s attorney general said Thursday that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin remains in power until it can be proven in Parliament that he had lost majority support.
The country was in a political limbo after the head of the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which is the largest party in the ruling alliance, urged Muhyiddin to step down and for an interim leader to take over until general elections can be held safely.
It marked the culmination of months of tensions since Muhyiddin took power in March 2020, after initiating the downfall of the reformist government that won the 2018 vote. His Bersatu party joined up with UMNO, which was ousted in the 2018 polls, and others to form a new government. But the alliance is unstable with a razor-thin majority in Parliament and UMNO unhappy at playing second fiddle to Bersatu.
The announcement could potentially trigger the collapse of Muhyiddin’s unelected government and fresh elections, although polls are unlikely during a raging coronavirus pandemic.
Attorney General Idrus Harun said there is no clear evidence that Muhyiddin has lost majority support in Parliament. He said this can only be decided by lawmakers in the lower house, and not based on the statement of a political party.
“Therefore, legally, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet remains in power to exercise their federal executive power,” he said in a brief statement. There has been no reaction from Muhyiddin.
Parliament has been suspended under a coronavirus emergency since January. The measures was criticized by UMNO and others as a way for Muhyiddin to stay in power. The legislature will resume July 26, ahead of the Aug. 1 expiration of the emergency, after Muhyiddin caved in to growing pressure, including from the nation’s king.
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi earlier Thursday accused Muhyiddin’s government of failing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. He said its inconsistent policies and half-baked lockdown measures have deepened economic hardships, with deaths doubling to more than 5,700 since a large-scale lockdown began June 1.
Zahid urged Muhyiddin to resign and make way for a temporary leader who will focus on battling the pandemic until it is safe to hold general elections.
“This is important to allow a government that is truly stable and has the mandate of the majority of the people to be formed,” he said after a meeting of UMNO’s top decision-making body.
But it is unclear if UMNO’s 38 lawmakers will toe the party line. Some have already protested Zahid’s announcement. Local media said Defense Minister Ismail Sabri, who was named by Muhyiddin as his deputy Wednesday, led opposition to Zahid’s plan to exit the ruling alliance at the UMNO meeting.
Muhyiddin’s office also said Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein would take over Ismail’s post as one of four senior ministers. Both Ismail and Hishammuddin will retain their security and diplomatic portfolios respectively.
Analysts said Muhyiddin has split UMNO by appointing second-tier leaders to his Cabinet and reinforced it with the new appointments.
“There has been 17 months of political deals and things have now come to a head. There is open war in UMNO and we have a weak government trying still to stay in power,” said Bridget Welsh from Malaysia’s University of Nottingham and an expert in Southeast Asian politics.
No coalition has a clear majority in Parliament. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may try to seek support but Zahid has said UMNO will not endorse his candidacy for prime minister.
UMNO earlier this year said the party will not work with Muhyiddin’s alliance in the next general election. Its attempt to seek early elections has been stymied by a worsening coronavirus crisis. Malaysia reported 8,868 new infections Thursday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 808,658.