Scandal-plagued party reclaims Malaysian leadership

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –

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An establishment stalwart was named Malaysia's new prime minister Friday after the previous government collapsed, with a scandal-plagued party reclaiming the leadership that it lost at landmark elections in 2018.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was deputy premier in the last administration, was appointed by the king as the country's next leader after receiving backing from most MPs.

His predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin quit Monday following a turbulent 17 months in office after losing parliamentary support, and as anger grew over his government's handling of a worsening coronavirus outbreak.

The incoming leader is from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lynchpin of a coalition that governed for six decades until losing power in 2018 amid the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB graft scandal.

UMNO had already regained a foothold in power as a partner in the last government, and Ismail Sabri's victory means they have now reclaimed the country's top job without elections.

The constitutional monarch picked the leader based on who commands majority support in parliament, rather than opting for elections, fearing that polls might worsen the country's already dire virus wave.

Following a meeting of the country's royal families, the palace said that the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, had appointed Ismail Sabri after assessing he had the most backing.

The widely revered monarch also called for the country's bickering politicians to focus on fighting the pandemic.

"The king hopes that with the appointment of the new prime minister, political turbulence in the country will be resolved quickly," the palace said in a statement.

He called on MPs to "cast aside their political agenda and instead unite to fight the pandemic to ensure the nation's prosperity", it said.

- Anwar loses out -

Long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has sought the job of prime minister for over two decades, lost out yet again.

Ismail Sabri becomes Malaysia's third prime minister since the 2018 elections set off a period of political turmoil in the country of 32 million people.

But his administration is essentially a rejigged version of the one that just collapsed. It is set to have a slim parliamentary majority, fuelling concerns it could be just as unstable.

An online petition against him becoming premier, which argued he had mishandled the virus outbreak during his time in Muhyiddin's government, had garnered over 330,000 signatures.

There were also concerns that with UMNO regaining the premiership, corruption cases against several of its lawmakers could be affected.

These include the case against ex-leader Najib Razak, who was convicted and sentenced to jail over the 1MDB fraud after losing power in 2018. He remains free pending an appeal.

Following the 2018 polls, a reformist alliance took power but this collapsed amid infighting, paving the way for Muhyiddin to take power.