KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin stepped down on Monday (Aug 16) after losing his parliamentary majority, but the political uncertainty in Malaysia deepened, with no clear successor in sight.
He tendered his resignation during a 30-minute audience with Malaysia's King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah.
The palace later issued a statement saying that Tan Sri Muhyiddin, president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, will remain as caretaker premier until a new prime minister who commands a majority can be appointed.
"His Majesty accepted the resignation of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister and the entire Cabinet effective immediately," said the palace statement.
Mr Muhyiddin then addressed the country in a live broadcast at 3pm "on my last day as prime minister", in which he insisted he could have remained in office by "sacrificing my principles".
"I will not conspire with kleptocrats or interfere with the judiciary or turn my back on the Constitution to stay in power," he said, in a thinly veiled reference to Umno MPs facing graft charges who had pulled support for him and his Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact earlier this month.
They include party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former prime minister Najib Razak, who is appealing against a conviction relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad financial scandal.
The latest turn of events draws the curtains on Mr Muhyiddin's tumultuous 18-month rule, after a fortnight-long assault on his leadership which began when 11 Umno MPs withdrew their support for him on Aug 3.
Despite a weekend of meetings and horse-trading across the political divide, there is still no lawmaker who has managed to cobble together at least 111 members of the legislature to form the government. There are 222 seats in Malaysia's Parliament, of which two are currently vacant.
The Straits Times understands that Mr Muhyiddin advised Sultan Abdullah that his Perikatan Nasional (PN) remains the largest bloc in Parliament, with 100 out of the 220 sitting MPs, however the Constitution does not provide for a minority government.
Datuk Seri Anwar's Pakatan Harapan (PH) pact has 88 MPs, but most lawmakers outside of the coalition are either opposed to his leadership or bound by Umno's resolution earlier this year to not team up with him or the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the largest component in PH.
Nonetheless, Mr Anwar has previously worked hand in glove with Umno president Zahid, whose camp has 15 MPs, to topple Mr Muhyiddin.
To form government, the two ex-deputy premiers must either deliver all 38 lawmakers from Umno, or persuade most of the 17 opposition MPs in various parties largely loyal to former premier Mahathir Mohamad to join them.
Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob has tried to convince his PN colleagues to back him for a smooth transition, with sources indicating he will offer his existing role of deputy prime minister to Bersatu. If he is able to convince Zahid's camp, then its majority will be restored as a government of 115 MPs.
But it appears that Zahid is refusing to endorse a potential challenger for the party leadership.
Malaysian Indian Congress president Vigneswaran Sanasee, whose party is part of the Barisan Nasional coalition led by Umno, has called on Zahid to support Datuk Seri Ismail as "only Ismail Sabri has got the numbers".
"There's no majority unless you get another 200 MPs coming from Mars," he was quoted as saying by Malaysiakini.
Nonetheless, Malaysia's longest-serving lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is also being weighed up as an alternative, as the Umno stalwart is seen as a compromise between the current government and opposition benches.
Umno youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki has called for a "non-controversial, non-threatening" leader with no long-term aim of entrenching themselves to lead a unity government with a "War Cabinet" that will call for polls once herd immunity from Covid-19 is reached.
This is widely seen as backing for former finance minister Razaleigh, 84, as the Kelantan Prince is not seen as able to take over Umno from its present leadership.
An option open to the King is to dissolve Parliament, but with polls required within 60 days, this would force a nation in the throes of its deadliest Covid-19 wave to head to the ballot box.
The palace said it had been briefed by the Election Commission that 79 per cent of constituencies are "red zones" with high levels of infections.