Anwar Ibrahim finally gets his audience with Malaysian King

Malaysia's perennial political bridesmaid, Anwar Ibrahim, has been granted an audience with the King to formally stake his claim to the prime ministership next Tuesday.

Anwar announced late last month his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition of parties had secured enough defectors from the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to have the required majority of 112 supporters on the floor of the parliament.

But King Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah cancelled his scheduled meeting with Anwar citing food poisoning and old sports injuries that required a stint in hospital, throwing the country into more political uncertainty.

Anwar Ibrahim will finally get his delayed audience with the King. But it’s far from certain he will be the next prime minister.Credit:AP

In a short statement late on Thursday, Anwar said he would meet the king on Tuesday. Anwar was deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998 and was a government backbencher from 2018 on a promise to take over from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in late 2020.

"At the meeting, I will present documentation of the strong and convincing majority of MPs as I mentioned earlier. I ask all Malaysians to remain calm, protect their health and continue to pray from their homes and workplaces and follow the Recovery Movement Control Order procedures," he said referring to the country's COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

But Anwar's ascent to the leadership is far from assured, and the meeting will be held as the country — which has handled the pandemic well and recorded just 14,368 infections in total — battles a sharp rise in cases.

Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah had a stint in hospital.Credit:AP

The fresh wave of infections, originating in the eastern state of Sabah and spurred on by local elections there, has seen daily numbers rise into the hundreds.

Muhyiddin is one of several senior politicians currently in quarantine after attending a meeting with Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri, who subsequently tested positive.

Rather than resigning, the Prime Minister could ask the King to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, a move that would block Anwar's ascension. However, the appetite for a national election is likely low, given the link between the recent spike in cases and the Sabah state poll.

Muhyiddin Yassin became Malaysia’s Prime Minister in February.Credit:AP

It's also possible the King will not be convinced by Anwar's claim of majority support and will want to interview all 222 MPs to ascertain loyalties, as he did in February when the Mahathir-Anwar Pakatan Harapan government fell apart.

The King could even tell the two men to sort out the mess on the floor of parliament with a vote of no confidence motion, something which has never happened before.

Pollster and political analyst Ibrahim Ben Suffian, from research firm Merdeka Centre, said the situation was fluid and depended on Anwar's ability to convince the King he had a majority.

"This latest move by Anwar hinges on some of the UMNO MPs switching sides to Anwar and Pakatan Harapan. Theoretically he would have the numbers then."

UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, is currently part of the government but senior party figures have suggested several MPs are prepared to defect to Anwar.

The University of Tasmania's James Chin, an expert on Malaysian politics, said he had seen several estimates of how many MPs Anwar could count on for support, ranging from 114 to 122.

Supporters of the would-be prime minister claim he could potentially count on more than 130 backers and suggest the King may already be convinced by his claim, hence the decision to grant him an audience.

Chin said it was also possible nothing would be decided on Tuesday.

"The King could resolve this quickly but for political reasons he won't do it. I expect on Tuesday [after the meeting] Anwar will hold a press conference saying how impressed the King is, then total silence from the Palace for four to five days, and then he will make a statement."

ANU research fellow Amrita Malhi said it was nearly impossible to predict the final outcome as political power brokers continued to negotiate.

"Anwar has made such claims to have the numbers before and things haven't gone his way in the end. Yet this time, he seems confident, he's announced the meeting ahead of time, and there hasn't been a huge media campaign against him or sudden scandal around him," she said.

"This could mean he's about to pull it off this time."

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