Scandal-plagued Malaysian party poised to win PM race

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –


A scandal-plagued Malaysian party looked set Thursday to regain the country's leadership that it lost at landmark elections three years ago, after the last prime minister resigned this week.

Muhyiddin Yassin quit Monday after a turbulent 17 months in office when allies withdrew support, and amid mounting anger at his government's handling of a worsening coronavirus outbreak.

With an election ruled out due to the pandemic, the king will pick the country's next leader based on who commands majority support in parliament.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was deputy premier in Muhyiddin's coalition, has received the backing of 114 out of 220 lawmakers, the Star newspaper reported.

The 61-year-old's supporters were called to the national palace Thursday to confirm their pick, one of his backers, MP Ahmad Maslan, said on Twitter.

If confirmed, it means the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lynchpin of a coalition that ruled Malaysia for six decades until losing power in 2018, will reclaim the premiership.

The party was already part of the last government, although Muhyiddin is from a different group.

"People who voted for change in 2018 will not be looking favourably to his appointment, and it will be an unelected appointment," said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham.

"So you will see polarisation continue."

An official announcement is expected Friday after a meeting of the country's royals.

UMNO was booted out of power after facing a storm of corruption cases, notably the 1MDB scandal.

Billions of dollars were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB in a fraud involving ex-leader Najib Razak, and spent on everything from a super-yacht to pricey artwork.

Najib has been convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail, although he remains free pending an appeal.

Analysts have warned that UMNO regaining the premiership could have implications for Najib's case, and for several other MPs facing corruption charges.

Meanwhile, the other main contender for the premiership, long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, looks set to lose out.

Following the 2018 polls, a reformist alliance headed by Mahathir Mohamad took power.

But that government collapsed last year amid infighting, paving the way for Muhyiddin to take power without a vote.