If the suspensions stand, the balance of power in Perak will return to the opposition.

Zambry and his colleagues replaced an opposition government, which won control of the state in general elections last March, but lost power following the defection of three of its members in January.

The March elections saw the ruling BN score its worst result in more than five decades in power, losing control of Perak and four other states and seeing its majority in the national parliament radically reduced.

Defections
 

The Perak crisis was sparked off by defections of three opposition legislators [EPA]
The Perak crisis has sparked allegations that the opposition defectors were bought over by Umno (United Malay National Organisation), the dominant partner in the BN coalition.

The escalating stand-off in the state comes as Umno's Najib Abdul Razak, Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting, faces party elections next month.

Following the defections, the state's hereditary ruler and titular head, Sultan Azlan Shah, appointed Zambry as the new chief minister.

The opposition claimed the sultan had acted unconstitutionally in making the appointment without waiting for a vote of confidence in the state assembly.

Sivakumar, the Perak speaker, also questioned the sultan's decision, a move fraught with risk of igniting racial conflicts.

Sultans in Malaysian states are highly respected and considered beyond reproach by most Malays, the country's ethnic majority, who also believe that decisions by sultans should not be questioned, especially by non-Malays.

'Abuse of power'

According to The Star newspaper, Zambry, the ousted chief minister, has described the suspension order as a joke that he said made a mockery of the system.

"The suspension is tantamount to not respecting the sultan," Mah Hang Soon, one of Zambry's suspended cabinet members, said.

Hamdi Abu Bakar, an associate of Zambry, said the suspended legislators would continue to work as normal.

"The speaker has no right to do that. It's an abuse of power," he said.

Last Friday, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the former opposition chief minister, filed a legal suit challenging the legitimacy of his successor and the new state government.