By Vincent Tan and D. Kanyakumari | Channel News Asia

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a protective mask arrives at a mosque for prayers, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Putrajaya, Malaysia August 28, 2020. REUTERS/LIM HUEY TENG

After several weeks of intense politicking in Malaysia, Mr Muhyiddin Yassin announced his resignation as Prime Minister on Monday (Aug 16). 

In a palace statement issued on the same day, it was announced that he would stay on as caretaker Prime Minister until the next government can be formed. 

The palace added that for the people’s safety, calling for a general election during the pandemic was not the best option. 

This will be the second change in government within two years, since Pakatan Harapan (PH) unseated the long-time Barisan Nasional government in May 2018, only to be replaced by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government in March last year. 

Here’s what you need to know about Mr Muhyiddin’s role as caretaker Prime Minister, potential front-runners to replace him as well as what happens in the event of a prolonged power vacuum:

What does the caretaker role entail?

Mr New Sin Yew, a committee member on the Malaysian Bar Council, said the appointment of a caretaker Prime Minister is more of a political rather than a legal move. 

“You’re either Prime Minister or not, no in-between. This means Mr Muhyiddin is still the PM, but there is an understanding he will resign once a new PM is found,” Mr New noted. 

This also means that Mr Muhyiddin, even in his caretaker capacity, could still exercise all the powers and functions of his office, Mr New said. The exception is by convention, a caretaker Prime Minister usually does not make any significant policy decision, he added. 

Mr New said in this instance, the caretaker Prime Minister was appointed as currently no member of Parliament (MP) appears to have a clear majority to be the Prime Minister. But the caretaker period should not be prolonged, he opined, and certainly not until the next general election. 

Likewise, Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told CNA the caretaker position was merely a stop-gap measure to give the king time to look at potential candidates and verify their number of supporters in the Lower House. 

“It is also important to note that the next person appointed after this is not an interim PM until the next General Election but a Prime Minister with full-fledged powers. So now the race is to see who this next PM would be.” 

When asked on Monday if his former Cabinet would be retained as caretaker Cabinet, Mr Muhyiddin said as far as he is concerned, he would be the one running the show. 

“It’s a one-man show,” he was quoted as saying by Bernama. 

On the responsibilities and power as caretaker Prime Minister, Mr Muhyiddin said there would definitely be a limit compared to the power he had before. 

“For instance, now I cannot sign a RM1 billion (US$236 million) cheque. I have to refer and follow the advice of the Attorney-General,” he added, according to Bernama.

Who are the front runners?

As the search for a new Prime Minister kicks off, Mr New said that once the premier has resigned, the king is constitutionally required to appoint an MP, who in his judgment, is likely to command the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House. 

This means that the next Prime Minister needs to be backed by at least 111 out of the current 220 MPs, while two seats remain vacant. 

Commenting on the potential front runners, Dr Oh suggested that those who are opposed to PN would have to be considered first.

“Realistically if you think about it, Dr Mahathir Mohamad is probably the best person because he has the determination and he is likely able to command the majority. This would be followed by Mr Anwar Ibrahim and Mr Shafie Apdal.”

Dr Mahathir, the former Prime Minister, now leads Parti Pejuang Tanah Air. Mr Anwar who presides over Parti Keadilan Rakyat also leads the PH coalition, while Mr Shafie helms the regionalist Parti Warisan in Sabah. 

Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia said that a better candidate would be Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah given his experience and clean record. 

A member of Kelantan’s royal family, Tengku Razaleigh had previously served as finance minister under Tun Hussein Onn and Dr Mahathir’s prime ministerships. He is currently the longest-serving MP, having been elected for his constituency since 1974.

He vied with Dr Mahathir for control of the-then ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in the late 1980s, precipitating a political and constitutional crisis that split the party in two. 

“If UMNO takes the reins of government, it has to be Tengku Razaleigh, because he has a squeaky clean record. No bad records, no allegations against him. He has not been in government for the last 30 years.

“He also has experience in the opposition. He is aging but he has no baggage. He was not involved with the baggage of this failed government,” Dr Ahmad Fauzi said.

Local media reported that party leaders are expected to have an audience with the king on Tuesday.

But regardless of who eventually assumes the mantle, the experts said that the next Prime Minister should confirm his or her majority in the next Parliament sitting with a confidence vote. 

“Former Prime Ministers Tun Hussein Onn and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi both did it. They had it even during the UMNO-dominated era, but Mr Muhyiddin did not do it even when it was very much in question.” 

“When Parliament finally met (earlier this month), it was in question and he never confirmed it. He should have, it would have made a difference. The fact that he waited until very late itself reflects on his dubious legitimacy,” Dr Ahmad Fauzi said. 

Besides a confidence motion, Mr New said, another mark of commanding majority support in the Lower House was the passing of the king’s speech, which lays out the government’s legislative agenda. Failure to pass either would mean the next Prime Minister would have to step aside again.

What happens if there is a prolonged political vacuum?

Looking ahead, senior fellow of the National Council of Professors Dr Jeniri Amir said that what is most important is to ensure the political vacuum does not stay in place for too long. 

“Last year when Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned, he was made interim and he stayed on for seven days. That cannot be the case now given the serious COVID-19 situation in the country,” Dr Jeniri added.

The academic added that as long as there was no bloc with a clear majority in the Parliament, the country would face another political crisis.

An alternative solution was to form a unity government including representatives from various parties, he suggested. 

Mr New said that with a caretaker premier being unlikely to make major policy changes, there would be implications for the Supply Bill, or Budget, which is normally slated for debate in the final quarter of the year. 

“Budget is a major policy decision, and failure to pass the Budget is a major parliamentary confidence test by convention,” Mr New said. 

Under a scenario where the caretaker Prime Minister has to table next year’s Budget in order to avoid furloughing government employees and disrupting services, a state of emergency would probably need to be declared to bypass the Constitution and pass the Budget, he explained. 

“But that would reflect a failure on our MPs, and it would be the same in terms of securing any extra funding for managing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a press release issued by UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Monday night, the party called for a stable government to be quickly established for a reasonable period to focus solely on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“To this end, an effective Cabinet similar to a ‘war Cabinet’ focusing only on the process of national recovery in the face of the pandemic should be formed,” Ahmad Zahid said. 

He added that once Malaysia has achieved herd immunity and conditions are possible to hold a general election, then the government must be dissolved and the people’s mandate returned. 

Ahmad Zahid also said that to ensure political stability and cooperation, the persecution of opposition parties and leaders had to be halted. 

“Using government agencies to weaken the opposition to remain in power will not benefit the people in any way,” he added.