KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday said he commands the "majority" of lawmakers needed to topple the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who showed no signs of being ready to quit later the same day.
Anwar did not reveal specific numbers or list the parties supporting him. But he claimed to have formed a new coalition with a "strong, formidable and convincing" majority among the 222 elected representatives in the lower house.
"Muhyiddin's government has fallen," Anwar told a packed news conference in a luxury hotel in Kuala Lumpur. "I'm not talking about a majority of four or five or six -- it's more than that," he said.
The political fog deepened hours later, when Muhyiddin released a statement insisting he is still the country's legitimate leader until Anwar demonstrates he has a majority according to the Federal Constitution.
"Without going through the stipulated processes, Anwar's statement is purely an assumption," Muhyiddin said. "Until proven otherwise, the National Alliance government remains strong and I am the legitimate prime minister."
This followed televised remarks in which Muhyiddin did not directly address Anwar's challenge but called on Malaysians to reject "blind actions by some politicians" designed to create instability and spoil the economic stimulus packages his government has unveiled since March, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"What is needed now is a stable and strong government with the support of the people," said Muhyiddin, who appeared somber and struggled to catch his breath at times -- a contrast from his jovial demeanor in previous TV appearances. "This is important so that more initiatives to revive the economy and help the common people can be implemented effectively by the government."
In a separate statement, the secretaries-general of six coalition parties within the National Alliance expressed support for Muhyiddin to stay on. "The claims are yet another cheap publicity stunt by Anwar Ibrahim," they said.
However, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the chairman of the National Front -- which controls a majority of MPs within the Muhyiddin-led coalition -- acknowledged that some of the camp's lawmakers had backed Anwar. He said this was up to individual members, who have a right to change their choice of preferred leader.
The raw seat totals remain unclear, as does the way forward.
At last count, the Muhyiddin-led National Alliance had the support of 114 MPs, just above the minimum 112 needed to form a government. Anwar's Alliance of Hope -- comprising his People's Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the National Honest Party -- held 91 seats.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had 15 in his corner, made up of independents and the Sabah Heritage Party.
Nevertheless, Anwar insisted he has the necessary votes and told reporters that he had spoken to Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin. Sultan Abdullah is currently receiving medical attention at the National Heart Institute, but Anwar said the conversation happened over the phone.
"We were supposed to meet the king yesterday but he was admitted in the hospital, so the audience will be soon. But we have sent a letter to His Majesty," he said.
Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst from National Science University, said Anwar's move could be a form of psychological warfare to influence voters in the ongoing legislative election in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. "None have come out openly to support him yet," he said.
Sivamurugan added that even if Anwar does have a majority, the king would still have a few options -- including the private interview process through which Muhyiddin was appointed. He could also opt to dissolve parliament for snap federal polls.
"I think the second option [of dissolution] is most likely, to return back to the people to get a fresh mandate," he said.
Another player to watch is the man Muhyiddin shoved aside to become prime minister, Mahathir.
Financial paper The Edge reported that Mahathir downplayed Anwar's announcement, quoting the former leader as saying this was not the first time his on-again off-again ally had claimed to control a majority.
"We will have to wait to see if this is another episode of making claims that cannot be substantiated," the paper quoted Mahathir.
Malaysia has been rife with speculation in recent months that Mahathir himself would try to bring down Muhyiddin.
The prime minister's string of economic stimulus packages, worth a total of around $70 billion, have been viewed as efforts not only to shore up the COVID-hit economy but also to keep Mahathir at bay. Now the same might be said of Anwar.
In his televised address on Wednesday, Muhyiddin announced another $2.4 billion in cash handouts and assistance to companies.