Malaysia on knife-edge as parties submit choice for next leader

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has backed former deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri as its candidate to become Malaysia’s next prime minister as opposition parties attempt to build support for their preferred candidate ahead of a Wednesday deadline for members of parliament to decide on who should get the job.

The current monarch, King Al-Sultan Abdullah has decreed that the next prime minister’s majority be tested in parliament, according to local media reports quoting Shafie Apdal, president of the opposition Warisan Sabah party.

Ismail Sabri, 61, was the deputy prime minister and defence minister in the administration of Muhyiddin Yassin who resigned on Monday amid political infighting and public anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UMNO and the parties allied to it agreed on Ismail as their preferred candidate at a meeting on Tuesday night, state news agency Bernama said.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, are choosing between Anwar Ibrahim and Shafie, the former chief minister of the Borneo state of Sabah, Shafie told local broadcaster Astro Awani.

Throughout his 17 months in office, Muhyiddin was under constant pressure to prove his majority in parliament while UMNO leaders threatened time and again to withdraw their support from the ruling coalition. The 74-year-old quit after admitting last week he no longer had a majority.

The king, a constitutional monarch, met party leaders on Tuesday.

After the meeting Anwar told reporters that the king had emphasised the country was facing a political and constitutional crisis.

“By the look of it, all the parties seem to have come to a consensus — that is to end ‘old politics’… and focus on the development of the country,” he added. The country’s 222 members of parliament have until 4pm (08:00 GMT) to notify the king of their choice. It is not clear whether there will be a vote of confidence in parliament to confirm whoever is chosen as the new prime minister.

‘Solution not problem’

Ismail, who served in the UMNO-led government that was rejected by voters in the May 2018 elections, was among a number of senior UMNO politicians who remained with Muhyiddin despite the party’s threats of withdrawal.

He was also the face of the administration’s coronavirus response – giving daily updates on arrests of those violating health rules and revisions to lockdown and quarantine rules.

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