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Malaysia in transition

With Muhyiddin, Malaysia's scandal-tainted parties return to top

Mahathir-Anwar spat gifts power to UMNO and conservative Islamic party

Muhyiddin Yassin is sworn in as Malaysia's eighth prime minister on March 1 at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's week of political turmoil has brought graft-scandal-tarnished political parties back to power, in effect undoing the historic 2018 election that was hailed as a victory for democracy and transparency.

Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in on Sunday as the country's eighth prime minister, replacing Mahathir Mohamad. Until recently the new premier had been considered nothing more than a dark horse candidate for the leadership, but he pulled off an internal coup by roping in former colleagues in the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, and other opposition parties who lost in May 2018.

"I feel betrayed mostly by Muhyiddin," Mahathir said on Sunday. "He was working on this for a long time and now he has succeeded."

Mahathir claims to still have the support of a majority of parliamentarians, even after King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin appointed Muhyiddin to be the prime minister.

After the king made the call, some Malaysians took to the streets in protest. On Twitter, the hashtags #NotMyPM and #NotMyGovernment were trending upward.

A protester in Kuala Lumpur holds a cut-out of Muhyiddin Yassin after his appointment as prime minister on Feb. 29.   © AP

While plotting with ruling party lawmakers last Sunday, Muhyiddin, 72, had tried to persuade the 94-year-old Mahathir to defect from the governing coalition, in order to ditch a prearranged plan for Anwar Ibrahim to take power.

Instead, Mahathir resigned on Feb. 24. "I refuse to work with people who are going through trials in the criminal court," Mahathir said, referring to UMNO lawmakers.

One of them is former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being tried for alleged corruption involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. At least five other UMNO leaders have been charged for graft that took place during Najib's time in office.

Now, Muhyiddin's ruling alliance is expected to be dominated by the UMNO, with 39 lawmakers, and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS, which holds 18 seats.

Both are known for conservatism.

The UMNO, which led the ruling coalition for over six decades until its defeat in 2018, ensured ethnic Malays held on to key positions in state institutions and government-linked companies.

Meanwhile, PAS, which rules two smaller Malaysian states of Kelantan and Terengganu, prioritized elevating Muslims atop key organizations. These two states take a holiday on Friday, instead of Sunday, for religious reasons. Under current PAS leader Hadi Awang, the Kelantan state government also passed a strict Islamic law in 2015 that allows amputation for thieves and stoning for adulterers, sparking alarm across the multiethnic country.

"If a new government is formed by Muhyiddin and his cohorts, it will be a Malay-leaning government with no real input from non-Malays who constitute 40% of the population," said James Chin, an expert on governance at the University of Tasmania. "PAS will push hard to adopt Islamization."

Malaysia's anti-graft body also investigated several PAS leaders for allegedly receiving funds from 1MDB last year, though no charges have been filed so far.

Despite widespread distrust of UMNO and PAS, they have re-emerged in no small part thanks to the two men who have lost out this week: Mahathir and Anwar.

Before joining forces for the 2018 election, the rivals-turned-allies had agreed that Mahathir would transfer power to Anwar after about two years. But the former refused to set a clear handover date, while the latter kept pushing for one, often subtly in public forums.

"There's an understanding that it should be around that time, but I don't think I should be too petty about the exact month," Anwar told Bloomberg last September, when asked if he would assume the leadership in May 2020.

The two agreed on Feb. 21 that Mahathir would stay on until after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, to be held in Malaysia in November. Muhyiddin's maneuvering, however, rendered their new deal worthless.

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