Malaysian parties announce leadership candidates, creating tense scenes | Political news

While the opposition was considering either Anwar Ibrahim or former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal as its candidate for the next prime minister, UMNO and its allies had endorsed Ismail Sabri.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has backed former deputy prime minister Ismail Sabri as its candidate to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, as opposition parties try to garner support for their candidate ahead of a Wednesday deadline for lawmakers to choose who will become prime minister.

According to local media reports citing opposition leader Warisan Sabah Party leader Shafie Apdal, current king Al-Sultan Abdullah has ordered a parliamentary test to test the majority support of the next prime minister.

Ismail Sabri, 61, had served as deputy prime minister and defence minister in President Muhyiddin Yassin’s government but resigned on Monday amid political infighting and public anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UMNO and its allied parties agreed on Ismail as their preferred candidate at a meeting on Tuesday night, according to state news agency Bernama.

Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to choose between Anwar Ibrahim and Shafie, a former chief minister of Sabah state on Borneo island, he told local broadcaster Astro Awani.

Muhyiddin had been under constant pressure during his 17 months in office to prove he had a majority in parliament, while UMNO leaders repeatedly threatened to withdraw their support from the ruling coalition. The 74-year-old stepped down last week, acknowledging he no longer had a majority.

The king, a constitutional monarch, met with party leaders on Tuesday.

After the meeting, Anwar told reporters the king stressed that the country was facing a political and constitutional crisis.

“It seems that all parties have reached an agreement – to end ‘old politics’ and focus on developing the country,” he added. The country’s 222 members of parliament have until 4 pm (8 am GMT) to inform the king of their candidates. It is unclear whether whoever is chosen as the new prime minister will be approved in a vote of confidence in parliament.

“Solutions, not problems”

Ismail, who served in the UMNO-led government rejected by voters in the May 2018 election, was one of several senior UMNO politicians who stayed with Muhyiddin despite his threats to quit the party.

He was also the face of the government’s coronavirus response, giving daily updates on arrests of people violating health rules and changes to lockdown and quarantine rules.

Last September, the prime minister said politicians and their entourages would not need to be quarantined after returning from campaigning in Sabah state, a region that sparked a surge in infections that Malaysia is still struggling to control.

Veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was among the party leaders who met with the king on Tuesday. Members of parliament have until 4 p.m. to nominate their candidate for prime minister. [Arif Kartono/AFP]

The Malaysian Health Coalition, a coalition of medical organisations and leading experts, called on the next government to make containing the pandemic a priority. The government should appoint “qualified experts” to respond to COVID-19, increase transparency and base policy decisions on science, it said.

The country reported 19,631 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.44 million, along with 293 deaths.

“Our people and our health system are increasingly stretched,” the Malaysian Health Coalition said in a statement. “Politicians must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Anger and discontent are growing in Malaysia over the government’s handling of the pandemic, with medical interns walking out of their jobs on July 26 and an unprecedented protest taking place in Kuala Lumpur five days later, with more expected later this month.

After police questioned participants who were monitoring the rally and members of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission Suhakam, rights groups said the next government must act to restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly.

“The government has responded to a wave of public anger sparked by political infighting and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic by restricting freedom of speech,” Rachel Choa Howard, Malaysia researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “In recent weeks, this trend has extended to peaceful assembly as well. As the political crisis continues, authorities have used repressive laws to quell dissent, investigating and arresting not only activists, journalists and protesters, but also opposition politicians and members of the public. It is vital that the next government learns from the past and stops attacking peaceful critics.”

Police also questioned 107 lawmakers who tried to march to Parliament on August 2 after it was closed for the first time in months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, which included Anwar and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was greeted by riot police.

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