Malaysia’s opposition Thursday refused a royal command to give up control of a northern state where the government says it has seized power, setting the stage for a political crisis.
The Perak state government building has been surrounded by a large police contingent including riot squad, while thousands of opposition supporters held a protest at the chief minister’s residence, eyewitnesses said.
Perak’s royal ruler, Sultan Azlan Shah, earlier Thursday refused the opposition’s request to dissolve the state assembly, after its narrow majority was snatched away with the defection of four lawmakers.
After meeting with deputy premier Najib Razak who said the Barisan Nasional coalition now had the numbers to control the assembly, the sultan asked chief minister Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin and his executive council to resign.
If they did not, the posts “are considered vacant,” the official news agency Bernama reported.
But Mohammad Nizar said the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance would not leave office, and that he expected police to try to arrest him and remove him from his official residence in the state capital Ipoh.
“I explained to his majesty that following a guidebook that the Perak sultan had written on the monarchy, the sultan should follow my advice as leader of the house to dissolve the assembly,” he told a press conference.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim appealed for calm, ahead of the protest at the chief minister’s residence where more than 3,000 people had gathered with many more arriving.
“I hope that this situation will not dissolve into violence and that the whole democratic process should be allowed to take its course,” Anwar said.
The crowd chanted “Reform” and “Justice” as they stood in the residence compound which was guarded by security staff in red berets and red t-shirts from the Islamic party PAS, a member of the opposition alliance.
Param Cumaraswamy, a prominent lawyer and former UN special rapporteur, said it would now be extremely difficult for either of the two sides to rule effectively in Perak, and urged the sultan to call fresh elections.
“A constitutional crisis is brewing,” he told AFP.
The opposition won Perak in general elections last March, with 32 seats in the 59-seat assembly against 27 for the Barisan Nasional coalition which rules nationally.
Najib has said that one of the defectors has joined Barisan while the others will be independent but support the government.
Perak is among five states captured by the Pakatan Rakyat in last year’s general elections, along with a third of seats in the national parliament, in its best ever electoral performance.
A victory in Perak would be a major coup for Najib, who is to replace premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi next March, and would boost his credentials within the government which has been in crisis since the 2008 polls.
But analysts have warned it could be an empty victory for Barisan Nasional because voters could see the move as undemocratic and more of the old-style dirty politics that were rejected at the ballot box last year.