Malaysia's king picks ex-deputy PM Ismail Sabri Yakoob as nation's new leader

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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.

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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.

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