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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia PM hunt focuses on UMNO's Ismail and opposition's Anwar

Party beaten in 2018 election eyes comeback; king insists on confidence vote

The National Palace in Kuala Lumpur: Lawmakers have until 4 p.m. local time on Aug. 18 to submit their prime minister picks to the king.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- The search for Malaysia's next prime minister appears to have narrowed to two leading candidates -- Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Anwar Ibrahim -- with the former widely believed to have the edge.

Ismail, who served as deputy prime minister in the Muhyiddin Yassin-led government before its collapse on Monday, has overcome a rift within his own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to secure the party's full support. If he prevails, the appointment of an UMNO prime minister would mark a dramatic reversal of the 2018 general election, when parties spearheaded by Mahathir Mohamad ended the scandal-tainted UMNO coalition's until-then uninterrupted run in power.

All eyes are now on the palace after a 4 p.m. Wednesday deadline for the lower house's current 220 lawmakers to submit their preferred candidate to King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin by fax, email or WhatsApp.

Ismail's consistent support of Muhyiddin had put him at odds with UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, but party members resolved their differences on Tuesday and settled on him as their single premier candidate. "There were some names proposed by the party president but the majority wanted Ismail," a source in UMNO told Nikkei Asia.

The party has 38 lower house representatives and indirectly controls three others through the National Front coalition. With all those lawmakers in his corner, Ismail looks to be the favorite to become Malaysia's ninth prime minister as long as other parties that supported Muhyiddin also stand by him.

The king has publicly stressed that the relentless political instability threatens the country's fight against COVID-19, and that a stable government should be formed as soon as possible. The palace has also declared that the choice of prime minister should face a confidence vote in parliament to ensure legitimacy. The king is expected to meet with his fellow Malay state rulers on Friday to discuss the situation as well.

In Malaysia's notoriously unpredictable politics, there is still a chance of a twist.

Anwar, who has long sought the prime minister's job, has the backing of his opposition Hope Pact coalition -- comprising his People's Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the National Honest Party.

But at last count, Anwar was backed by 105 lawmakers -- seven short of a simple majority in the 222-seat house, where two spots are vacant. After the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) signaled on Wednesday that all 18 of its lawmakers would also support Ismail, Anwar's hopes for making up the difference appear to hinge on the Sarawak Parties Coalition (GPS), a Bornean regional party that controls 18 seats.

At 74, Anwar has had a rocky political career, including minister posts as well as what many believe were trumped-up sodomy allegations and imprisonment. This is his fourth attempt to become prime minister since 1998.

Standing in his way now looks to be Ismail, 61. A lawyer by education, Ismail has held one federal portfolio or another since becoming youth and sports minister in 2008, barring a short spell in the opposition from 2018 to 2020. He also served as the parliament's opposition leader for a year.

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