Former Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has been sworn in as the ninth premier of Malaysia. The new leader faces the daunting task of bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control and stabilizing a nation wracked by political turmoil for years due to a bitter power struggle between the ruling and opposition parties.
Muhyiddin Yassin, the previous leader, resigned with his cabinet on Aug. 16, saying he had lost the support of the majority of parliament after being criticized for failing to control the pandemic and for disregarding parliament. The ruling coalition has been beset by a series of defections since July.
King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin appointed Ismail Sabri to the prime ministership after the politician received support from 114 of the 220 lower house lawmakers. The king had the lower house lawmakers recommend a candidate for the top spot, as the country's constitution states that the king appoint as leader a lower house member believed to command majority support.
While the structure of the ruling coalition remains intact, the grouping holds only a slim majority in parliament. The new government rests on a weak foundation, which makes forming and managing a cabinet a delicate task.
Malaysia is still recording about 20,000 new coronavirus cases each day. The medical system is strained and the manufacturing sector has been impacted, slowing the country's economic recovery. The new prime minister must promptly put the government back on track and avoid another political vacuum.
Malaysia experienced an unprecedented change of government in 2018 when the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation was defeated in a general election. UMNO lost that poll amid suspicions of corruption, especially the embezzlement scandal involving the state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) -- a result that proved the country's democracy was alive and well.
However, political infighting and shifting loyalties in the new coalition continued after the change of government, and the leadership lost touch with the voters who elected it. Both Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin had to resign as prime minister after a short period of time.
Ismail Sabri is a member of UMNO, meaning a member of the party that lost power has returned to the Prime Minister's Office without any new elections. The government must determine the will of the people. To that end, the country should hold a general election once the pandemic is brought under control. That will serve an important path to demonstrating and ensuring that Malaysia's democracy remains intact.