Malaysia's opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) yesterday reaffirmed Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim as its prime minister candidate, but conceded that it would need to continue talks with other parties, including rival candidate Shafie Apdal, in order to return to power.
Datuk Seri Anwar initially did not have the support of his PH allies - Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara - which had backed former premier Mahathir Mohamad instead. His PKR, meanwhile, had refused to endorse Tun Dr Mahathir.
Dr Mahathir, DAP and Amanah then mooted a compromise can-didate, in the form of Datuk Seri Shafie, who is the chief minister of Sabah.
Mr Anwar has resisted the overture, and PH's top leadership meeting yesterday was unable to convince him otherwise.
The coalition then announced its first pick to be Mr Anwar, but noted that returning to power "requires the support of all quarters".
"The presidential council gives Datuk Seri Anwar the full mandate to continue discussions with all parties, including Datuk Seri Shafie, to ensure the restoration of (the election) mandate," PKR, DAP and Amanah said in a statement, referring to PH's May 2018 polls win.
PH was ousted from government in late February after about 40 lawmakers left the pact, depriving it of a majority in Parliament. These MPs, led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, went on to form the ruling alliance Perikatan Nasional (PN) together with the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition, Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) - and with Mr Muhyiddin as Prime Minister.
With just a week to go before Parliament reconvenes, the opposition is still unable to agree on who should lead its planned counter-coup should it muster the required support.
Its 108 MPs are made up of 91 from PH and 17 who support Dr Mahathir. Dr Mahathir's backers include renegades from Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Mr Shafie's Parti Warisan Sabah, and several other East Malaysian lawmakers.
At least 112 MPs are needed to command a majority in the 222-seat Parliament. Mr Muhyiddin's PN has a narrow lead of 114 MPs.
Dr Mahathir has proposed a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister, but this has yet to be heard in Parliament. Mr Muhyiddin postponed a March session, and the May 18 sitting was adjourned immediately after the King's speech, leaving no room for the no-confidence motion to be heard.
The government is attempting to replace Speaker Ariff Yusuf at the sitting next Monday, which would require a vote in Parliament. The opposition's 108 members appear united in rejecting this motion. But they are unlikely to gain support from across the floor without a clear leader, say PH sources.
"Basically, both sides (PKR and its PH allies) backed off and the statement is saving face without a real conclusion. DAP and Amanah have made their stance clear before that Anwar can't achieve a majority," a leader who attended the presidential council meeting told The Straits Times.
"Today, we ensured that Pakatan remains united, but it means we will have to prepare for snap polls instead of restoring the mandate we won in 2018," a PH source said.