Malaysia’s monarchy is taking center stage as the country awaits a resolution to a four-day power struggle pitting Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad against long-time rival Anwar Ibrahim.
The king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has spent the past two days speaking to lawmakers to determine who has the support of the majority after Mahathir’s resignation on Monday due to bickering in the coalition. The monarch could announce the name of Malaysia’s next prime minister as soon as Thursday or decide to push for an election. Mahathir was expected to meet the king at noon.
The spotlight on the king is unusual. The Malay rulers usually stay on the sidelines, stepping in only to perform ceremonial functions like swearing in ministers or pardoning criminal convicts. After Mahathir’s shock election win in May 2018, the then-king made him wait nearly an entire day to be sworn in as prime minister.
This time, the uncertainty is worsened by shifting alliances among a range of political parties divided largely on racial and religious lines.
Mahathir said Wednesday he would return to power if enough lawmakers back him. The former ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which now commands 41% of seats in parliament after Mahathir’s party left, announced it would back Anwar as premier.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, speaks during a plenary session on day two of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. (Bloomberg/Andrey Rudakov)
On Thursday, opposition parties United Malays National Organization and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, making up more than a quarter of the house, denied a report they would back Muhyiddin Yassin -- an ally of Mahathir -- as prime minister. A few regional parties who could shift the balance of power haven’t stated publicly who they would support.
Malaysia’s rotational monarchy dates back to the British colonial era when the Conference of Rulers were set up to be composed of the rulers of nine Malay states. The position of the king is passed among the rulers, with each term lasting five years.
The current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, ascended the throne last year after the previous monarch stepped down in an unprecedented abdication. Sultan Abdullah is the ruler of Pahang state, the birthplace of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is facing corruption charges he denies.
A street vendor selling roasted chestnuts on Petaling Street in the Chinatown district of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Bloomberg/Samsul Said)
Mahathir clashed with the royalty when he ran the country in the 1990s, removing their legal immunity and scrapping laws barring people from criticizing the king. Anwar appears to have warmer ties with the royalty. The former king pardoned him a week after Mahathir’s election win in 2018, and asked his wife, then-Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, if she wanted to become the premier.