By Joseph Sipalan, Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Four Malaysian parties on Tuesday rejected veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad’s proposal for a unity government that could have strengthened his grip, calling instead for an election to end the political turmoil after he quit as prime minister.
The world’s oldest government leader at 94, Mahathir stepped down on Monday, shattering a fragile and increasingly unpopular coalition that had ruled since a 2018 election.
But the king immediately appointed Mahathir as interim prime minister with full authority until a new government is formed.
Mahathir proposed the idea of a grand coalition at meetings on Tuesday with leaders of major political parties, including his one-time rival and alliance partner Anwar Ibrahim and the four parties they defeated in the 2018 election.
But those parties, led by the former ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), said they wanted a new election in the Southeast Asian country of 32 million people.
“Let the people decide,” UMNO member Annuar Musa told a news conference.
A unity government could have given Mahathir even greater authority than during a previous spell as prime minister from 1981 until his retirement in 2003, during which he is credited with turning a farming backwater into an industrial nation.
His political comeback came with the 2018 election defeat of then premier Najib Razak’s UMNO, amid accusations of widespread corruption.
‘JUST ANOTHER DAY’
As the wrangling over a new government began, Mahathir tweeted pictures of himself at his desk reading government papers.
“Just another day in the office,” he said on his official Twitter account. He has offered no explanation for quitting.
Meanwhile, the palace said the king would try to find someone with the support to form a new government by holding individual meetings with all 222 elected members of parliament’s lower house on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lawmakers leaving the palace said they been given a form on which to indicate their choice of prime minister, or whether they would prefer parliament to be dissolved.
Three other parties, from the former ruling coalition between Mahathir and Anwar, said they had reached a consensus on their next step and they would convey it to the king on Wednesday, but they did not say what it was.
When asked if they had the number of seats in parliament they would need to form a new government, they said they did.
The political crisis comes at a particularly bad time for the Malaysian economy, after growth fell to a decade low in last year’s final quarter.
The stock market recovered slightly on Tuesday from an eight-year low hit the previous day, while the currency also rose after having hit its lowest in nearly six months.
Mahathir had been due to unveil on Thursday a stimulus package to soften the economic fallout from a coronavirus outbreak, but that has been postponed to an unspecified date.
Mahathir and Anwar formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition to defeat UMNO and its Barisan Nasional alliance in 2018.
Anwar had been Mahathir’s deputy before the latter arrested and jailed him in the late 1990s for sodomy and corruption, charges that Anwar and his supporters maintain were aimed at ending his political career.
Amid the national political crisis, turmoil also spread to Malaysia’s states, In Johor state, defections from Pakatan meant power would shift to an UMNO alliance. In Perak state, UMNO called for a new election.
(Additional reporting by Krishna N. Das, Liz Lee and Mei Mei Chu; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi and Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams)