Malaysian king picks ex-deputy PM as nation’s new leader

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Ismail Sabri Yaakob

Former Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob waves to media as he leave after meeting with the King at national palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Yaakob appeared to have won majority support to be Malaysia’s new leader. His backers have been summoned to the palace Thursday to verify to the king they support him. (AP Photo/FL Wong)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s longest-governing political party reclaimed the premiership it lost in a shock 2018 election defeat, after the king on Friday named its candidate, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as the country’s new leader.

Ismail was the deputy prime minister under the government of Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned Monday after less than 18 months in office as infighting in his coalition cost him majority support.

Ismail’s appointment essentially restores Muhyiddin’s alliance. It also brings back the rule of the United Malays National Organization, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 elections over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.

King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said Ismail had secured the backing of 114 lawmakers for a slender majority. He said Ismail, 61, will be sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on Saturday.

The announcement came after the monarch met state Malay rulers who advised him on the appointment. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.

Sultan Abdullah said in a statement that he hopes Ismail’s appointment will bring an end to the country’s political turmoil. He urged lawmakers to set aside their political differences and unite to tackle the country’s worsening pandemic.

“Ismail’s appointment was not unexpected. With this, UMNO is now back in the driver’s seat,” said James Chin, an Asian expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania.

Ismail’s 114 votes exceed the 111 needed for a simple majority but is close to the backing Muhyiddin had and was unable to keep. Ismail is from UMNO, the larger party in the alliance, leaving him on firmer ground, but he still needs Muhyiddin’s party for enough support to lead.

Angry Malaysians had launched an online petition to protest Ismail’s candidacy, with more than 340,000 signatures collected so far. Many believe Ismail’s choice will restore the status quo, with its perceived failed response to a worsening pandemic.

Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June. Daily new infections have more than doubled since June to hit a new record of 23,564 on Friday, bringing the country’s total to over 1.5 million cases. Deaths have surged to above 13,000.

A lawyer before he joined politics, Ismail held several ministerial posts in previous UMNO governments. In 2015 as trade minister, Ismail courted controversy when he urged ethnic Malay consumers to boycott profiteering Chinese businesses. He was also slammed for supporting the vaping industry, which is dominated by Malays, despite health warnings from the health ministry.

In 2018 polls, Ismail waved the racial card, warning that every vote for the opposition was akin to eliminating special privileges given to Malays under a decades-old affirmative action program.

Ismail was named defense minister when Muhyiddin took power in March 2020, and became the government’s public face through daily briefings on security issues related to the pandemic. He was promoted to deputy prime minister in July as Muhyiddin sought to woo support from UMNO, which was unhappy at playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s smaller party.

Ismail defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose three-party alliance is the biggest opposition bloc with 88 votes. Even if all opposition parties support him, he still falls short with 105 votes.

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