Malaysia's political stand-off could lead to snap election


Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia is facing a snap election if its squabbling political parties cannot agree on a candidate to be the next prime minister.

Interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who dramatically resigned earlier this week, revealed on Thursday evening that the Malaysian Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah had not been able to find any one MP who could confidently command a majority in parliament.

Mahathir, a wily 94-year-old who has dominated Malaysian politics for decades, appeared to pre-empt an announcement that was expected to be made by the King on Friday.

The race to become the next Malaysian prime minister is shaping up as a contest between Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, two men who have alternated as allies and enemies for more than two decades.

The race to become the next Malaysian prime minister is shaping up as a contest between Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, two men who have alternated as allies and enemies for more than two decades. Credit:James Massola, AP

"The Agong [King] cannot find anyone with a distinct majority. The Dewan Rakyat [parliament] will be called next month to see who will become the next Prime Minister. If the Dewan Rakyat fails to find a person with a majority, then we have to go for a snap election," Mahathir said.

The parliament is now set to sit on Monday, March 2, a week earlier than had been scheduled.

The King spent Tuesday and Wednesday interviewing all 222 MPs from the lower house about whether they favoured Mahathir to be re-installed as prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim - who was on a promise to replace Mahathir as leader of the now fallen coalition Pakatan Harapan government - or a new election.

Since the Pakatan Harapan coalition collapsed on Monday the parliament has been split roughly into three groups - Anwar has about 92 MPs supporting him, Mahathir about 64 MPs while the opposition grouping, which appears to favour a new election, and which includes the UMNO and PAS parties, has about 60 MPs.

At one point, bizarrely, all three groups appeared to want Mahathir to be reinstated as prime minister but that idea lasted about one day.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.Credit:James Massola

Mahathir also appeared to support Muhyiddin Yassin, the head of Mahathir's Bersatu Party - which had been part of the Pakatan Haran government until just days ago - putting himself forward as a candidate for prime minister to oppose Anwar.

He suggested that Muhyiddin was prepared to work with the scandal-tinged UMNO party to achieve a majority, which governed until 2018 and which has several of its senior cadres linked to the 1MDB financial scandal, including former prime minister Najib Razak. The interim prime minister has said he will not work with UMNO as a party, but would accept individual MPs defecting to his cause.

Mahathir has also proposed himself as prime minister of a national unity government, but appeared to concede he does not have the numbers - at least not yet.

The announcement from Mahathir represents the latest dramatic twist in a week of dysfunction and chaos in Malaysian politics.

In 2018, Mahathir and Anwar - who have been political allies, enemies and allies over the course of more than two decades - achieved a surprise election win that marked the first transfer of power in the country, 61 years after it gained independence from Britain.

The Election Commission said on Thursday a snap poll could cost as much as 700-800 million Ringgit ($A250-280 million).

Australian National University Malaysian politics expert Amrita Malhi said "the extent of the tactical manoeuvring that is still going on tonight makes it very difficult to predict where this is going, and whether it might spin out of control somehow, causing all the key relationships break down irrevocably".

Malaysia's financial markets, already struggling with a hit from coronavirus, have taken a dive in recent days because of the political uncertainty that has gripped the country.