Anwar Ibrahim rose to deputy prime minister before he was sacked in 1998 and re-emerged as a figurehead for reform.
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim met the Southeast Asian nation’s king on Tuesday morning and said he passed over documents proving he had the parliamentary support needed to become prime minister as he urged incumbent Muhyiddin Yassin to resign.
At a press conference in Kuala Lumpur after the hour-long meeting, Anwar said he had shown the king evidence of his “formidable, convincing majority among parliamentarians”, and that the monarch would now meet party leaders and consider the situation.
Anwar said he had the support of more than 120 lawmakers in the 222-strong parliament, disclosing his numbers for the first time since he announced last month he had secured a majority to form a new government.
In a statement, the palace acknowledged that Anwar had presented documents during the meeting, but had not provided a list of names that could strengthen his claim.
“I urge all parties to give space to the king to carry out his responsibilities under the constitution, and to go through the documents and call party leaders to confirm and receive their input and views,” Anwar told reporters.
The renewed struggle for power comes as Malaysia faces a new wave of coronavirus cases that have prompted the authorities to impose a two-week lockdown in Kuala Lumpur and the neighbouring state of Selangor, the country’s richest state, with effect from midnight (16:00 GMT) on Tuesday.
Should Anwar succeed in securing the post, he would become Malaysia’s third prime minister this year.
Seated alone, Anwar did not disclose the names or allegiances of the parliamentarians supporting him. To a question about whether his backers included those currently facing charges of corruption, he said his would be an “inclusive” government, but anyone joining it would have to respect due legal process.
“There is no political vendetta against anyone,” he said. “But as I have already made it abundantly clear we are committed to institutional reform, judicial independence and the rule of law, there is no issue of cutting deals.”
Anwar has been a fixture of Malaysian politics since the 1970s when he emerged as a student activist. Later recruited into the then dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) by Mahathir Mohamad, he rose rapidly through the ranks to become deputy prime minister and finance minister.
But Mahathir sacked his protege in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s and charged him with sodomy – an offence in Malaysia – and corruption.
Anwar, 73, has spent almost 10 of the past two decades in and out of jail and become a figurehead for reform. He appeared to be on track to becoming prime minister – collaborating again with Mahathir as a result of the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal – after his Pakatan Harapan coalition ousted UMNO and its partners in a May 2018 election that saw the country’s first change in government in 60 years.
But that government collapsed in February this year, and Muhyiddin – who had also switched allegiance from UMNO to Pakatan – emerged as prime minister after a week of political uncertainty triggered by differences within the Pakatan coalition.
No main party has offered a clear declaration of support for Anwar although one party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, has said some of its MPs support him.
Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics based in Kuala Lumpur, says that Anwar’s credibility has been “badly affected” because he has not revealed the names of the parliamentarians who are supporting him.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah plays a largely ceremonial role but he can appoint a prime minister who in his view is likely to command a majority in parliament. He also has the power to dissolve parliament and trigger elections on the premier’s advice.
Local media reported Anwar’s car arrived at the palace at about 10.25am (02:25 GMT). He left after about an hour, smiling and waving to supporters and the media who had gathered at the palace gates.
On Monday, police said they had opened an investigation into Anwar’s claim of a majority, after a list of his alleged backers spread on social media.
Muhyiddin is under pressure over his administration’s handling of COVID-19. The country had largely brought the virus to heel, but an attempt to topple the Pakatan-friendly government in the state of Sabah coincided with an outbreak of the virus in the Borneo state, Malaysia’s poorest.
The harm that this will cause beyond the disease itself. I really don’t know what to say.
— Azrul Mohd Khalib (@azrulmohdkhalib) October 12, 2020
The MCO was supposed to buy us time to prepare the health care system for future outbreaks, NOT to eradicate the virus. What did we do for the past 6 months since MCO in March? Are you saying we didn’t prepare enough?
— Boo Su-Lyn (@boosulyn) October 12, 2020
After an election was called to resolve the issue, politicians and campaign staff travelled back and forth between Borneo and the peninsula and sometimes did not follow the protocols on mask wearing and social distancing.
Officials said those returning to Kuala Lumpur from Sabah would also not be required to go into quarantine if they tested negative when arriving at the airport, despite strict centralised quarantines for all arrivals from overseas.
The virus has now spread across Sabah and seeded outbreaks in every state in the country.
Politicians, including Malaysia’s religious affairs minister and Sabah’s new chief minister, have been among those diagnosed with COVID-19. The entire cabinet is currently in the midst of a 14-day isolation period.
There were 563 new cases reported on Monday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 16,220.
Anwar said the government’s handling of the pandemic response was “lacking” and too little was being done revive the economy.
The decision to impose a lockdown in Kuala Lumpur was greeted with anger by many residents who questioned the need for such a broad-based response.
Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of the health ministry, said the move reflected not only the actual number of cases in an area but the pattern of transmission.
“If the transmission of the infection has spread to every district throughout the state and records new cases every day, it means transmission can no longer be effectively curbed,” he wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday morning.