By Joseph Sipalan
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Wednesday he has secured a ‘formidable’ majority from lawmakers to oust Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and form a new government, heralding a fresh bout of political drama in the Southeast Asian country.
The power struggle comes at a difficult time for the multi-ethnic nation, as its export driven economy has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The Malaysian ringgit and stocks fell after Anwar’s comments.
Anwar now has to convince Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah, that he has the numbers to form a government, but as yet no major political party has come out in his support.
The king could instead choose to call for elections on Muhyiddin’s advice to end months of political volatility.
Muhyiddin, whose seven-month-old coalition has survived on a razor-thin majority, dismissed Anwar’s claims as a “mere allegation”, telling him to prove his majority through a constitutional process.
“Until proven otherwise, the Perikatan Nasional government remains steadfast and I am the rightful prime minister,” Muhyiddin said in a statement referring to his ruling coalition.
Muhyiddin also unveiled an additional economic stimulus package worth 10 billion ringgit ($2.41 billion).
The six major political parties supporting Muhyiddin dismissed Anwar’s claim as “cheap publicity” and said in a joint statement that they were firmly behind Muhyiddin, who emerged as leader after the resignation of the previous prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
If Anwar finally succeeds in winning power it would mark the culmination of a 22-year long struggle, during which he spent almost 10 years in jail.
“We have a strong, formidable majority. I’m not talking about four, five, six (seats), I’m talking about much more than that,” Anwar told reporters. “With these numbers, Muhyiddin has fallen as PM.”
Anwar said he commanded support from close to two-thirds of the legislature’s 222 lawmakers, without giving actual numbers or disclosing who had pledged support.
He also said he has the support of some lawmakers from Muhyiddin’s coalition and that he was open to working with the premier.
Mahathir, whose past feud with Anwar charted the course of Malaysian politics over the past 20 years, said he will “wait to see if this is another episode of making claims that cannot be substantiated,” the Edge newspaper reported.
Anwar’s next step would be to meet with the king, Sultan Abdullah. The king plays a largely ceremonial role in Malaysia but he could appoint a prime minister who in his view is likely to command a majority in parliament. He could also dissolve parliament and trigger elections on the premier’s advice.
Anwar and the palace said he was scheduled to meet with the king on Tuesday but it had to be cancelled as the king was unwell and had to be taken to a hospital.
Analysts said elections were more likely to end the political uncertainty.
“If Anwar has the numbers, snap polls will be very likely,” said Adib Zalkapli, director at political consultancy BowerGroupAsia.
Muhyiddin came to power in March after securing a majority with the support of UMNO, which was defeated in the 2018 election. His opponents have accused him of grabbing power by shifting alliances instead of earning it at the ballot box.
Anwar, 73, has had a tumultuous political career. At first a rising star of Malaysian politics and UMNO, he was jailed for sodomy and corruption after being fired as deputy prime minister by Mahathir in 1998.
He was again jailed on sodomy charges in 2015, when Najib Razak was prime minister.
Anwar has described all the charges brought against him as a plot to destroy his political career. He was granted a royal pardon in 2018, as part of the deal with Mahathir for him to succeed the premiership, after the two had forged an alliance to defeat Najib in the 2018 election.
(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Ed Davies and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Martin Petty & Simon Cameron-Moore)