KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's former deputy premier Ismail Sabri Yaakob moved a step closer on Thursday (Aug 19) towards becoming the country's next prime minister, after gaining a parliamentary majority.
A total of 114 MPs in the 220-seat Parliament affirmed their support for him in front of the King on Thursday, ahead of a special meeting of the Council of Rulers on Friday (Aug 20) which will deliberate the matter.
If Datuk Seri Ismail is appointed, this would herald the return of Umno to the country's top post, just three years after the party lost the general election in May 2018 over the 1MDB financial scandal. He is one of the three vice-presidents of Umno.
The appointee will be Malaysia's ninth prime minister, and the country's third premier in over three years after the fall of Umno-led Barisan Nasional. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as premier in May 2018, and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in March 2020 following the collapse of the Mahathir government.
Caretaker Prime Minister Muhyiddin, who is also chairman of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance, said the coalition unanimously supported Mr Ismail to ensure the continuity of government policies in "battling Covid-19 and healing the nation" until a general election can be held.
The support, however, was made on the condition that the new Cabinet does not include MPs facing criminal charges, Mr Muhyiddin said.
"If appointed as prime minister by the King, he must ensure that his Cabinet members only comprise those who possess integrity, are trustworthy and free from any criminal charges in court," Mr Muhyiddin said in a statement on Thursday.
Several Umno leaders including president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak are facing dozens of corruption charges.
Umno secretary-general Ahmad Maslan told reporters outside the palace that each of the 114 MPs met the King for one to two minutes each.
They were asked to state their name and constituency, and to reaffirm that their support for Mr Ismail was made "voluntarily without duress".
Meanwhile, the opposition said it has not received an invite for an audience with the King.
All parties who were in the PN government have backed Mr Ismail, except veteran Umno MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who was a possible candidate for the premiership until Umno decided to back Mr Ismail, 61.
The 114 votes obtained by Mr Ismail means that rival contender, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the Pakatan Harapan opposition pact, has failed to obtain enough support to become the next PM.
The King decreed on Wednesday that the MP chosen to succeed Mr Muhyiddin would still need to pass a confidence vote in Parliament to assert his legitimacy.
There are 222 seats in the Lower House, but two seats are vacant after their lawmakers passed away. Thus a minimum of 111 MPs are needed for majority control of Parliament.
In February last year, Sultan Abdullah picked Mr Muhyiddin as prime minister, after a week-long political impasse following then Dr Mahathir's shock resignation.
The Muhyiddin administration, which lasted for 18 months, was plagued by accusations of being a "back-door government" and came under heavy criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has seen record numbers of infections and deaths over the last few months.
Following the loss of his majority with the withdrawal of 15 Umno MPs from Perikatan Nasional earlier this month, Mr Muhyiddin promised to push for a motion of confidence in the next parliamentary session and offered a raft of reforms to the opposition last week in a bid to secure enough votes.
But he was forced to resign on Monday after the opposition rejected his reform deal to gain bipartisan support.
Scratching your head over Malaysia's shape-shifting politics? Join ST's Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh to get a lowdown in our Clubhouse app live chat on Aug 20 from 12.45pm-1.30pm.