Malaysian ex-PM Najib seeks support for opposition leader's premiership bid

·3-min read

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Former Malaysian premier and now-ruling party lawmaker Najib Razak sought support from coalition lawmakers on Monday to back a prime ministerial bid by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim - the latest twist to the political crisis in Kuala Lumpur.

Anwar was one of the key leaders in a coalition that defeated Najib in a historic election in 2018. Najib has since been convicted of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He's out on bail and has appealed the verdict.

Najib's support for Anwar could deepen turmoil for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is facing calls to resign after Malaysia's king rejected a request for him to declare emergency rule amid a leadership challenge from Anwar.

Muhyiddin has a two-seat majority in the Southeast Asian nation's parliament and any shift in support from within his coalition would mean he loses the majority.

Najib, in response to reports on his support for Anwar, said his first suggestion was for his UMNO party to push for a date for fresh elections once the COVID-19 outbreak is under control.

If that is rejected by the ruling coalition, UMNO should be open to working with Anwar's party under certain conditions.

In a Monday meeting of the Barisan Nasional coalition to which UMNO belongs, Najib asked lawmakers in the alliance to endorse Anwar, three sources familiar with the matter said. Many of his coalition allies were against the idea, they said.

Anwar did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Najib's backing of Anwar marks a striking turnaround in their relationship.

Anwar, who has long led Malaysia's opposition with a reform agenda, was jailed during the Najib administration on sodomy charges, which he denied and said were politically motivated.

Anwar then joined hands with foe-turned-ally Mahathir Mohamad, a longtime former prime minister, for the 2018 election in which they defeated Najib, who was facing graft allegations in a multi-billion-dollar scandal. Mahathir, now 95, later stepped down and was replaced by Muhyiddin.

Anwar had last month said that he had the support of majority lawmakers in parliament, including administration defectors, to oust Muhyiddin. But he never identified who supported him.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition is beset with infighting, with some UMNO officials balking at playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin's party. The UMNO-led Barisan coalition had governed the country for over 60 years since independence from Britain until its defeat in 2018.

Some of UMNO's corruption-tainted leaders, including Najib, have been trying to revive their political fortunes.

The support for Anwar comes with Muhyiddin under increasing pressure from his coalition allies and the opposition.

Muhyiddin had on Friday requested emergency rule amid a fresh spike in coronavirus infections in Malaysia and a global pandemic that has battered the economy.

But critics accused him of using it as a pretext to suspend parliament and avoid a test of his razor-thin majority.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan, additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)