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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's PM seals political cease-fire to focus on COVID battle

Ismail Sabri says deal with Anwar and others will pave way for stabilizing reforms

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is attempting to put a stop to perpetual political upheaval.   © Malaysian Prime Minister's Office via AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's ruling and opposition parties on Monday inked an agreement that promises to halt a long bout of political instability, in a boost for new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's fledgling government.

After taking charge in August, one of Ismail Sabri's first moves was to open negotiations with rivals, hoping for a cease-fire that would allow him to focus on fighting COVID-19 and rebuilding the economy.

The prime minister on Monday said the deal includes strengthening COVID-19 strategies, as well as the pursuit of parliamentary, administrative and judicial reforms. He did not elaborate on what the reforms would entail, but the goal appears to be to achieve less fractious politics, in a nation that has seen three prime ministers in three years.

"Today, the federal government and Hope Pact made history by inking a Memorandum of Understanding on Transformation and Political Stability," Ismail Sabri said in a statement, referring to the opposition force led by Anwar Ibrahim.

"The transformation introduced by the government will not only encourage excellent management in fighting COVID-19 and aiding economic recovery but also enable a conducive investment climate, which would contribute to stronger economic growth."

Malaysia's daily COVID-19 cases have declined from their peak of over 24,000 in August, but the country is still recording around 20,000 cases a day.

The agreement marks a pause in the Hope Pact's effort to return to power before the next general election, due in the next 18 months. Anwar was Ismail Sabri's primary competitor for the premiership after Muhyiddin Yassin resigned in July, having failed to demonstrate a parliamentary majority.

Malaysian politicians including Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim sign the memorandum of understanding in parliament on Sept. 13. (Photo courtesy of the Malaysian Prime Minister's Office)

Ismail Sabri's success in cobbling together support put his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), back on top despite a string of graft scandals that saw voters reject it in the May 2018 election. While this raised eyebrows around the globe, Anwar and other opposition leaders including former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party have now agreed to cooperate with the UMNO-led government.

In a tweet, Anwar vowed to "do our best for the future of the people and the country."

Absent from the deal was Mahathir Mohamad, who leads the new Homeland Fighters' Party. Sources close to the two-time prime minister -- who had led the Hope Pact with Anwar when it ended UMNO's six-decade run in power in 2018 -- told Nikkei Asia that the 96-year-old does not believe in a political cease-fire and considers it unhealthy for a parliamentary democracy.

Nevertheless, the agreement also appears to mark an end to the opposition's push for Ismail Sabri to prove his narrow majority through a confidence vote. Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin earlier urged such a vote, but a date has not been set.

The signing ceremony took place in parliament hours after the king commenced the session. During his opening speech, the monarch reminded lawmakers not to gamble with people's lives while chasing their own political ambitions.

"To the members of parliament, don't risk the future of the country and the people for certain agendas," he said. "Put all your focus on overcoming the pandemic and economic issues."

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