Reform opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim moved closer to becoming Malaysia’s new prime minister after a political party agreed on Thursday to back a unity government after an inconclusive general election.
Any deal still needs to be approved by the King of Malaysia. Elections last Saturday led to a hung parliament that renewed a leadership crisis in Malaysia, which has had three prime ministers since 2018. Police stepped up security across the country as social media warned of racial unrest if the multi-ethnic Anwar bloc won.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, came out ahead in the race with 82 parliamentary seats, short of the 112 needed for a majority. The Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin won 73 seats. The alliance led by the United Malays National Organization, which has 30 seats, holds the key that will tip the scales.
UMNO reversed its decision to remain in opposition, saying it would take into account the king’s proposal for a unity government.
UMNO General Secretary Ahmad Maslan said on Thursday that the party’s highest decision-making body had decided to henceforth support a unity government that is not led by the Muhyiddin camp. He said the party would accept any unity government or any other form of government decided by the king.
UMNO holds 26 seats and four others are held by the parties that make up its National Front alliance. It is unclear whether other party members have agreed to follow UMNO’s decision.
If the 30 deputies of the National Front support Anwar, he will obtain the majority. Anwar already has the support of a small party on the island of Borneo with three seats. In all, this will give him 115 parliamentary seats.
If Anwar lands the top job, it will allay fears about the rise of right-wing politics in the country. Muhyiddin’s bloc includes the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which has 49 seats, more than double what it won in 2018. Known as PAS, it backs Islamic Sharia, leads three states and is now the largest party.
Malay Muslims make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include significant Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah is due to meet royal families from nine states on Thursday to consult on the standoff. Malaysia’s hereditary state rulers, who take turns as the country’s king every five years under a unique rotation system, are highly regarded by the country’s Malay majority as guardians of Islam and Malay tradition.
Anwar’s reformist alliance won the 2018 elections that led to the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. But the government collapsed after the defected from Muhyiddin and joined forces with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was plagued by internal rivalry and he resigned after 17 months. UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob was later chosen by the king as prime minister.
Many rural Malays fear losing their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with the corruption and infighting within UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.