King confers with Malaysia's nine state rulers after audit of Ismail's 114 backers

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s nine state rulers will meet at Istana Negara in Kuala Lumpur on Friday afternoon (Aug 20), in what is set to be the penultimate act before Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob can officially be announced as the ninth prime minister.

Although the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, will have the final say in deciding who can command the majority in Parliament, Datuk Seri Ismail’s backers have declared victory, after 114 out of the legislature’s 220 members were summoned to the palace on Thursday to affirm their support for the Bera MP.

“With 114 MPs, we understand Ismail Sabri has the majority,” Umno secretary-general Ahmad Maslan told reporters after his audience with the King.

However, a potential flashpoint could be a wish from some of the monarchs to see a unity government among parties across the political divide, sources in the know have told The Straits Times.

This is ostensibly to avoid a repeat of the instability that had plagued the Perikatan Nasional government led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin until he resigned on Monday, where the withdrawal of a handful of Umno MPs was sufficient to deprive him of a majority.

Calls for a “war Cabinet” comprising leaders from various parties as well as non-partisan experts have grown this week, as Malaysia continues to be in the throes of its deadliest Covid-19 wave. Daily infection records have continued to be broken this week despite nearly four months of lockdown and an accelerated vaccination programme.

It is unclear if the royals can prevail on a premier who has a clear majority, as the Constitution obliges the King to appoint ministers in accordance with the advice of the prime minister. At least 111 lawmakers are needed for a simple majority in the 222-seat Parliament. Two seats are currently vacant.

However, with Mr Muhyiddin’s battle to stay in power finally undone after a clash with the palace over the revocation of emergency ordinances last month, Malaysia’s politicians are wary of courting potential accusations of treason against the rulers, who are revered by the Malay Muslim majority as guardians of their ethnic and religious interests.

The 114 MPs supporting Mr Ismail are an exact replica of those who were in the Muhyiddin administration. They include members of the caretaker premier’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Umno – save renegade Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah – as well as several smaller parties and independents.

However, GPS chief Abang Johari Openg has been coy about who they have nominated, although other leaders in Sarawak state’s ruling coalition have said that they picked Mr Ismail, who was Mr Muhyiddin’s deputy in the previous government.

Some in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan party are holding on to a flicker of hope, after the former deputy premier finally coaxed other opposition parties to support his candidacy, adding 17 MPs to his coalition’s existing 88, bringing the total to 105.

  • Scratching your head over Malaysia’s shape-shifting politics? Join ST’s Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh to get the lowdown in our Clubhouse live chat today from 12.45pm to 1.30pm.

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