Malaysia’s interim leader Mahathir Mohamad has said parliament will pick a new prime minister next week following the collapse of the ruling alliance and snap elections will be called if the vote ends in an impasse.
Mahathir, who met the king earlier on Thursday, said the monarch could not find a candidate with a clear majority to lead the nation after consulting all 222 legislators over the last two days.
As such, he said, the king decided to have the lower house of parliament vote on a new leader on March 2.
“If the lower house fails to find a person with the majority, then we will have to go for a snap election,” Mahathir told a news conference.
A failed bid by Mahathir’s supporters to form a new government without his designated successor, Anwar Ibrahim, and Mahathir’s shock resignation on Monday broke apart the ruling alliance less than two years after it defeated a corruption-tainted coalition that had led the country for 61 years.
Both Mahathir and Anwar are vying for the premiership, renewing a political feud that stretches back more than 20 years.
“The king is obviously being very cautious. He decided not to give Anwar or Mahathir to form a government and let the MPs decide,” said James Chin, head of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania. “This means horsetrading will carry on all weekend until Monday morning.”
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy in the 1990s during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister, but he was sacked following a power struggle and later jailed on sodomy and corruption charges that he said were trumped up. Anwar led a reform movement that helped build a fledgeling opposition but was jailed a second time for sodomy in 2014 in a move he said was aimed at killing his political career.
Mahathir, who retired in 2003 after 22 years in power, made a comeback in 2016, spurred by anger over a significant corruption scandal involving a state investment fund. Mahathir and Anwar reconciled and forged an alliance that won the 2018 election that ushered in the first change of government since independence from Britain in 1957.
But their relationship remained uneasy as Mahathir refused to set a timeframe to hand over power to Anwar.
Mahathir, the world’s oldest leader at 94, said on Wednesday he wanted to form a nonpartisan government if chosen as premier for a third time. He said he had quit to show he was not power-crazy and because he did not want to work with the former corrupt government that he overthrew in 2018 polls.
But his unity government plan was rejected by Anwar’s camp and other opposition parties, which said it would only create a “Mahathir government” that was not accountable to the people and was unsustainable.
Anwar said legislators from the three remaining parties in his alliance had nominated him to be prime minister when meeting the king after Mahathir rejected their offer to restore their former government. Anwar’s camp controls 41 percent of parliamentary seats, 20 seats short of a simple majority.
Mahathir on Thursday also said he had rescinded his resignation as chairman of his Bersatu party.
Bersatu ditched the governing alliance four days ago in a bid to form a new government with several opposition parties. But it flopped after Mahathir quit in protest of the plan to work with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak who is on trial for corruption.
Mahathir reiterated on Thursday he still cannot accept UMNO but was willing to embrace UMNO members who leave the party. He said he will accept the outcome of Monday’s vote and the new leader elected can choose anyone as cabinet members, alluding back to the unity government plan he proposed.
The political drama that unfolded over the weekend saw 37 legislators, led by Bersatu, ditching the ruling alliance, depriving it of majority support. The king dissolved the cabinet but reappointed Mahathir as interim leader.