Malaysian prime minister resigns but remains interim leader

Malaysia’s embattled prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, has resigned but will stay on as interim premier, the royal palace has said, as the country struggles with its deadliest Covid outbreak yet.

Muhyiddin offered his resignation to the king on Monday morning after holding a special meeting with his cabinet. His resignation follows months of political instability that led to the loss of his majority in parliament.

The palace said King Al-Sultan Abdullah did not believe an election should go ahead due to the Covid situation, and he was happy for Muhyiddin to stay on as interim leader.

“The king has received the resignation letter of Muhyiddin Yassin and the entire cabinet effective immediately,” it said. “Following the resignation, the king is pleased for Muhyiddin to fill the role as caretaker prime minister until a new prime minister is appointed.”

Muhyiddin’s government had been precarious ever since he was sworn in almost 18 months ago. He was named prime minister following a flurry of backroom deals held after the abrupt collapse of the then ruling coalition, but with no public mandate.

Over recent weeks his razor-thin parliamentary majority has crumbled, despite attempts to win support from opposition MPs. Muhyiddin is facing growing anger over the Covid crisis, which has continued to worsen despite lockdown restrictions.

Muhyiddin said in a televised address that he had submitted his resignation to the king because he had failed to maintain the confidence of a majority of lawmakers. He hoped a new government would be formed as soon as possible, he said.

The Covid outbreak means polls are unlikely to go ahead in the short term. Snap elections held in the state of Sabah last year, and associated campaigning by politicians, have been blamed for the country’s third wave of infections.

When the previous ruling coalition collapsed in February 2020, the king, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, met all 222 lawmakers to determine who had majority support, eventually selecting Muhyiddin.

He could have taken similar action this time or asked for another lawmaker to become an interim leader. No party has a clear majority in parliament.

A three-party alliance nominated its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, as a candidate for prime minister. However, while this is the biggest opposition bloc, it has fewer than 90 lawmakers, short of the 111 needed for a simple majority. It is believed 100 lawmakers are backing Muhyiddin, according to reports by Associated Press.

Anwar previously partnered in an unlikely alliance with the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad that won power in 2018, ousting the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which was mired in corruption scandals. It was agreed that Anwar would succeed Mahathir as leader. However, Mahathir resigned last year, prompting their coalition to collapse before power was handed over.

Other names touted as possible successors include the deputy prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister, both of Umno.

Mahathir, who is 96, has called for a bipartisan national recovery council, made up of professionals such as medics, lawyers and education figures, to help the country recover from the pandemic. He has offered to lead the body.

Malaysia is facing its deadliest Covid wave yet, which has placed intense pressure on hospitals and caused economic pain for many. Some households have hung white flags from their windows to signal they are in need of food or emergency assistance.

Last month hundreds of protesters dressed in black defied Covid rules to protest against the government. Demonstrators, many of them young people, called for Muhyiddin to resign, accusing him of being more concerned with protecting his own political career than managing the Covid response.

Muhyiddin declared a nationwide state of emergency in January, apparently to tackle Covid. However, critics accused him of using the pandemic to escape accountability by suspending parliament and avoiding a no-confidence vote.

Though the country managed to contain the virus with relative success for much of last year, the latest wave has continued to grow despite lockdown measures, with public health experts blaming inconsistencies in the restrictions.

More than 1.4m cases and 12,000 deaths have been recorded, with daily infections breaching 20,000.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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