KUALA LUMPUR - The King has set a Wednesday (Aug 18) 4pm deadline for Malaysia's 220 MPs to declare their choice to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, as he steps into the breach to resolve a political deadlock for the second time in 18 months.
But the focus was trained on the palace for a second day running after Tan Sri Muhyiddin resigned on Monday, as it hosts major party leaders on Tuesday afternoon.
The chiefs of various parties such as Umno, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Pakatan Harapan's (PH) three components arrived a few minutes before 2pm, confirming The Straits Times report that in a curious development, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah had summoned them to a joint audience.
Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters after the two-hour audience that "the King said the shape of politics must change, meaning the victor must no longer oppress those that lose."
"There must be a pooling of the strengths of all parties with a new understanding in the spirit of cooperation to address the problem of Covid-19 and revive the economy. All parties appeared to come to a consensus to end the exhausting old politics," he said.
Sources with knowledge of the discussions had told The Straits Times that the unique step of meeting all major players at once indicated the ruler wanted politicians to set aside their differences and back a compromise candidate in a unity government as no candidate currently commands a clear majority in Parliament.
The audiences came ahead of the Wednesday deadline Sultan Abdullah has set for MPs to inform the palace who they back as the next Prime Minister, according to a letter from Parliament Speaker Azhar Harun sighted by The Straits Times.
The monarch faces the daunting task of appointing a new government with no leader so far able to present a clear majority.
The fallen Perikatan Nasional is now nominally led by Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob - although a comeback for Mr Muhyiddin cannot be fully ruled out - who has so far been unable to rally all of Umno's 38 MPs behind him, which would boost their ranks from 100 to 115.
However, sources indicate that the outgoing deputy premier is "short of about five" to reach the 111 needed for a simple majority in Parliament.
Nonetheless, Umno MPs are meeting Tuesday night ahead of the deadline to submit their declarations to palace.
Datuk Seri Anwar has the backing of about 90 lawmakers with 88 from his PH coalition.
But Parti Warisan Sabah youth chief Azis Jamman said the party's eight MPs will back the Parti Keadilan Rakyat president if it means he crosses the line. Otherwise, PH should pledge its support to Warisan president Shafie Apdal.
In February last year, Sultan Abdullah eventually picked Mr Muhyiddin, after an onerous process of interviewing each MP failed to yield a clear majority. The decision was disputed by former premier Mahathir Mohamad who had himself tried to form a unity government having resigned days earlier after refusing to go along with plans by his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia to leave PH and ally with Umno.
The leading nominee to head a unity government today would be Umno's former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Malaysia's longest-serving lawmaker is widely respected but not viewed as having ambitions to dominate the fractured political landscape.
Top opposition strategists have revealed that the Kelantan prince had been an option prior to Mr Muhyiddin's resignation on Monday, as Datuk Seri Anwar had been unable to enlarge his base in the 222-seat Parliament, where two are currently vacant.
"We were split between those who believed we must have a convincing alternative to Muhyiddin, and those who preferred to capitalise on the chaos after he quits," one official said.
Late Monday, Umno began pushing for a "war Cabinet" with youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki making a thinly veiled endorsement of Tan Sri Razaleigh, 84, by calling for a "non-controversial, non-threatening" premier to lead the country until Malaysia's deadliest Covid-19 wave has subsided and fresh polls can be held.
This was followed up by a similar exhortation from Umno president Zahid Hamidi.
But Zahid's statement that "to ensure political stability and cooperation can be achieved, the act of persecuting opposing parties and leaders must end" has raised eyebrows.
Many in Zahid's faction, which has about 15 MPs, have graft cases hanging over their heads, and Umno is also locked in a dispute with the Registrar of Societies over the legitimacy of its Supreme Council after deciding to delay its leadership polls.
Should a Razaleigh administration only have a short-term mandate to hold an election as soon as possible, this would allow Zahid's allies, which includes former premier Najib Razak who is appealing a conviction in the 1MDB saga, to try and wrest power directly before they are disqualified by virtue of a criminal conviction.
Leaders outside of Umno are also facing court action, including DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, whose trial for corruption while he was Penang chief minister is ongoing.