Home / Politics / News /  Malaysia’s Prime Minister steps down amid covid-19 criticism

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned amid criticism over his Covid-19 policies, bringing renewed uncertainty to a government that has been marked by political infighting since Malaysia’s longtime ruling party lost in the wake of one of the world’s largest financial scandals.

In a speech Monday, Mr. Muhyiddin said his last ditch effort to shore up political support so he could see through the pandemic recovery had failed. “There were those who were greedy for power instead of prioritizing the lives and livelihoods of the people," he said of political rivals.

Mr. Muhyiddin, a veteran politician, took the helm a year and a half ago after breaking with the ruling coalition and Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s then-94-year-old prime minister. Mr. Muhyiddin formed a government with conservative members of the opposition, who had been defeated in the country’s 2018 national election.

This new coalition came into power with a thin majority and without holding a new election, making it unstable from the start. In recent weeks, it was weakened by defections, with former supporters citing the failed handling of the pandemic, among other reasons, as cause for leaving.

It is now up to Malaysia’s king to decide who will be the next prime minister, based on which politician he thinks commands the support of the majority of parliament. The palace said on Monday that Mr. Muhyiddin would stay on as a caretaker prime minister until the king selected another member of parliament who could serve in the position with majority support.

“The king has absolute discretion," said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and a scholar of Malaysian politics.

Another potential option would be dissolving parliament and calling a new election, but the palace said that would endanger public safety. Government officials have previously said that state polls held in Malaysian Borneo last September contributed to a large outbreak of the virus later that year.

During the past six weeks the virus has gotten further out of control in Malaysia, posing a challenge to the government. The Delta variant has caused a surge of infections since July, with more than 15,000 cases reported daily in this country of 33 million in recent weeks, along with around 200 deaths a day. Malaysia is now reporting more daily Covid-19 deaths on a per capita basis than its hard-hit neighbor Indonesia, which is reeling under its own Delta-driven surge.

In response, the country has rapidly stepped up its vaccination campaign, with around a third of the country fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in Southeast Asia and more than double the share who were fully vaccinated one month ago.

The outbreak prompted the government to institute severe restrictions on factories throughout the country, requiring many in nonessential sectors to temporarily close. Defecting members of Mr. Muhyiddin’s coalition claimed that his lockdown policies were inconsistently enforced and failed to prevent a rise in deaths.

Other reasons for his loss of political support include a public reprimand in late July from Malaysia’s king, who is held in high esteem by much of the country’s political establishment. The king criticized the government for dismissing emergency orders that allowed the state to mobilize private assets to fight the pandemic, among other things, saying that any decision should have been made by parliamentary vote.

In his resignation speech Monday, Mr. Muhyiddin said that he and his colleagues had done everything they could to save lives during the pandemic, and apologized for any missteps. He said that under his watch Malaysia had achieved a fast-paced vaccination program, which he hoped would be continued under the next government.

Mr. Muhyiddin was little known internationally when he wrested the role of prime minister from Mr. Mahathir. Until then, Mr. Muhyiddin had served in secondary roles to several figures who had dominated Malaysian politics for decades.

He had previously been deputy to former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who currently serves in parliament despite his conviction in 2020 for abuse of power. The charge was the first in a string of cases against Mr. Najib over allegations he unlawfully received hundreds of millions of dollars from a state investment fund called 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB. Mr. Najib’s 12-year prison sentence was postponed pending his appeal.

Mr. Muhyiddin lost his job as deputy under Mr. Najib in 2015 after he raised issues with the government’s handling of investigations into 1MDB. The following year he was ejected from his political party, the United Malays National Organization, which had dominated politics in the country since Malaysia won independence in 1957.

Mr. Muhyiddin then joined forces with Mr. Mahathir, who was a rival of Mr. Najib, building a new political party called Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu. Bersatu pulled together a coalition of parties that won a historic election in 2018, beating Mr. Najib’s UMNO amid voter concern over the 1MDB scandal.

But Bersatu broke apart less than two years later, with both Mr. Mahathir and Mr. Muhyiddin claiming to be its rightful leader. Mr. Mahathir resigned as prime minister and Mr. Muhyiddin formed a new government relying on a faction that supported him within Bersatu, as well as support from UMNO. In recent weeks some members of UMNO, including Mr. Najib, pulled that support, dooming Mr. Muhyiddin’s chances of staying on as prime minister.

Mr. Muhyiddin said in his resignation speech that he had stayed true to his principles as prime minister, and would never collude with “a group of kleptocrats" or interfere with the judiciary to stay in power.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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