KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned on Monday after less than 18 months in power, apologizing for his shortcomings but blaming those “hungry for power.”
Muhyiddin conceded that he had lost majority support to govern, making him the country’s shortest-ruling leader.
“I have tendered my resignation as prime minister and also for the entire Cabinet ... because I have lost the majority support of lower house members,” he said in a televised final message after meeting the king.
“I take this opportunity to seek forgiveness ... for all my mistakes and weaknesses during my tenure as prime minister. I and my Cabinet colleagues have tried our best to save and protect lives ... in this period of crisis. However, as a human being, we are bound to make mistakes so I apologize."
He said he had hoped to stay on until the country's coronavirus vaccination program is completed and the economy has recovered, but was thwarted by those “hungry for power."
Muhyidddin’s departure plunges the country into a new crisis amid a worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Political leaders have already begun to jostle for the top post, with his deputy, Ismail Sabri, rallying support to succeed Muhyiddin and keep the government intact.
The palace said the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, accepted Muhyiddin's resignation and appointed him as caretaker prime minister until a successor is found, in line with the constitution.
Sultan Abdullah said a new election is not an option because many parts of the country are COVID-19 red zones and health facilities are inadequate. He urged the nation to stay calm and expressed hope that the political turmoil that has disrupted the country's administration will be swiftly resolved.
The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
Muhyiddin's resignation comes amid mounting public anger over what was widely perceived as his government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, with daily cases breaching 20,000 this month despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June to tackle the crisis.
“Muhyiddin has been ruling on borrowed time. His poor governance, focus on survival politics and unwillingness to acknowledge his failings have led to his undoing,” said Bridget Welsh of Malaysia's University of Nottingham, an expert in Malaysian politics.
But his departure also puts Malaysia in unchartered waters. “The focus now is on Malaysia having a peaceful transition to a new government that can manage the crisis," she said.
Muhyiddin's government had a razor-thin majority and dodged leadership tests in Parliament from the start. It finally fell when 15 lawmakers from the United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in his alliance, pulled their support for his government. Two UMNO ministers also resigned from the Cabinet before Monday's actions.
Muhyiddin had repeatedly insisted that he still had majority support and would prove it in Parliament next month. But in a U-turn on Friday, he sought opposition backing to shore up his government and promised to call general elections by next July. He also offered concessions including proposals to limit the prime minister’s tenure, bolster checks and balances and give a senior minister role to the opposition leader, but his plea was rejected by all parties.
Muhyiddin took a swipe at UMNO leaders who opposed him, several of whom have criminal cases against them.
“I could have taken the easy route and sacrificed my principles to remain as prime minister but that is not my choice. I will not compromise with kleptocrats or interfere with the judiciary just to stay in power,” he said.
The king will have a tough task picking a new leader because no coalition can currently claim a majority. A three-party alliance which is the biggest opposition bloc has nominated its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, as a candidate. But the bloc has less than 90 lawmakers, short of the 111 needed for a simple majority. That’s also less than the 100 lawmakers believed to have backed Muhyiddin.
Other contenders include Deputy Prime Minister Ismail who is from UMNO, but it's unclear if a deal can be struck and if the king will accept it.
Local media said another possible candidate is Razaleigh Hamzah, an 84-year-old prince who was a former finance minister. Razaleigh, an UMNO lawmaker, is seen as a neutral candidate who could unite the warring factions in UMNO.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 96, has called for a national recovery council to be formed and led by professionals to resolve the country’s economic and health crises.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the collapse of Mahathir's reformist government that won 2018 elections. He pulled his Bersatu party out to join hands with the UMNO-led coalition that had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal. Mahathir abruptly resigned to protest Bersatu’s plan to work with the former government.
Muhyiddin's government was unstable because UMNO was unhappy with playing second fiddle to his smaller party. Muhyiddin halted Parliament for months last year to shore up support. He again suspended Parliament in January and ruled by ordinance without legislative approval under a state of coronavirus emergency that ended Aug. 1.