With concerns growing about the possible spread of Novel Coronavirus, facemasks are an increasingly-common sight in cities such as Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)
With concerns growing about the possible spread of Novel Coronavirus, facemasks are an increasingly-common sight in cities such as Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

As Malaysia’s political parties jostled on Tuesday to replace the coalition government that collapsed the previous day, the fate of a potentially vital economic stimulus package was hanging in the balance.

Concerns about the twin impacts of the China-US trade war and the deadly coronavirus outbreak prompted Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan/Alliance of Hope government to draft financial proposals that were due to be announced on Thursday.

However the proposals have been stalled by the shock resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday and the withdrawal of his Bersatu party from the governing alliance.

Lim Guan Eng, who was finance minister in the government, stated on Tuesday afternoon that Mahathir intended to publish details of the package “at a date to be announced by him.”

Malaysia’s political turmoil comes after economic growth dipped to a low unseen since the 2008 global financial crisis, numbers that are expected to fall further once the impact of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak is accounted for.

Chinese investment in and tourism to Malaysia have grown substantially over the past decade, leaving Malaysia vulnerable to the virus-related slowdown in China.

Back at his desk on Tuesday morning after being named interim prime minister five hours after Monday’s resignation, Mahathir posted “just another day in the office” on his various social media accounts.

Party representatives lined up to meet Mahathir amid competing claims about who has the 112 parliamentary seats needed for a majority.

Annuar Musa, the secretary-general of the opposition United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), told local media on Tuesday morning that an alliance with several opposition parties – as well as members of the former government, including Mahathir’s Bersatu party – will give UMNO enough MPs to try form a government.

UMNO governed Malaysia as part of the Barisan Nasional/National Front coalition from independence in 1957 until a shock May 2018 election loss to the alliance led by Mahathir in partnership with his former foe Anwar Ibrahim, 72.

On Sunday, Anwar, the designated successor to 94-year-old Mahathir, alleged “treachery” by former allies who he said were attempting to form a new government at his expense. Anwar later backtracked, saying Mahathir was not part of the plot.

Anwar-allied parties are also claiming to have the numbers to retain power. Lim Guan Eng, leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which was part of the just-ousted governing coalition, told a press conference: “I reject the contention that we do not have the majority. I think that can be tested in parliament when it sits again in March.”

Lim Guan Eng’s father, Lim Kit Siang, another senior DAP member, accused rival parties of “hijacking” the 2018 election result.

Bersih (Clean) 2.0, a prominent non-governmental organization that led several prominent protests in Kuala Lumpur over the past decade, warned of repeat demonstrations should a “backdoor” government be formed comprising parties defeated in 2018.

Those demonstrations saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets to call for various political reforms.

Bersih 2.0 called for snap parliamentary elections to resolve the power vacuum, while the Attorney-General and some civil society groups believe that Malaysia’s parliament, which reconvenes on March 9, should be the forum to decide the next administration.

“Any attempt to form a new government through political horse trading must be avoided especially if it negates the aspirations of the electorate,’ lawyers group The Malaysian Bar stated on Tuesday.

Various parties are due to meet Malaysia’s king, Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, later on Tuesday, as part of the formalities of setting up a new government.

The king plans to interview all 222 lawmakers individually on Tuesday and Wednesday in an attempt to ascertain what grouping has a majority.

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