Reformist opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim edged closer to become Malaysia's new prime minister after a political party agreed Thursday to support a unity government following inconclusive general elections.
Any agreement must still be approved by Malaysia's king. Last Saturday's divisive election led to a hung parliament that renewed a leadership crisis in Malaysia, which had three prime ministers since 2018. Police have tightened security nationwide as social media warned of racial troubles if Anwar’s multiethnic bloc wins.
Anwar's Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, topped the race with 82 parliamentary seats, short of the 112 needed for a majority. Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, won 73 seats. The alliance led by the United Malays National Organization, which has 30 seats, hold the key that will tilt the balance.
UMNO reversed its decision to remain in the opposition, saying it will heed the king's proposal for a unity government.
UMNO's secretary-general Ahmad Maslan said Thursday the party's highest-decision making body has decided to now support a unity government that is not led by Muhyiddin's camp. He said the party will accept any unity government or any other form of government decided by the king.
UMNO holds 26 seats and four others are held by component parties in its National Front alliance. It is unclear if the other party members have agreed to go along with UMNO's decision.
If all 30 National Front lawmakers support Anwar, he will secure a majority. Anwar already has the support of a small party in Borneo island with three seats. In all, that will give him 115 parliamentary seats.
Read more: Former Malaysia PM Mahathir loses ground to poll rivals
If Anwar clinches the top job, it will ease fears over the rise of right-wing politics in the country. Muhyiddin's bloc includes the hard-line Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which has 49 seats — more than double what it won in 2018. Known as PAS, it backs Islamic Shariah law, rules three states and is now the single largest party.
Malay Muslims are two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, who include large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah is to meet Thursday with royal families from nine states to consult them on the deadlock. Malaysia’s hereditary state rulers, who take turns as the country’s king every five years under a unique rotation system, are highly regarded by the country’s Malay majority as the guardians of Islam and Malay tradition.
Anwar’s reformist alliance won 2018 elections that led to the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. But the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined hands with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was beset by internal rivalries and he resigned after 17 months. UMNO leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob was then picked by the king as the prime minister.
Read more: Malaysian foreign minister, int’l lawmakers demand decisive action on Myanmar
Many rural Malays fear they may lose their privileges with greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting in UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.