A Malaysian court announced today that the ruling coalition unlawfully ousted the chief minister of a state previously governed by the opposition in a major blow to the new prime minister's efforts to consolidate power.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin of the opposition People's Alliance is the rightful chief minister of northern Perak state.
The verdict questioned the legality of a decision by Perak's sultan, who is the titular head, to appoint Zambry Abdul Kadir of the ruling National Front as the chief minister in February.
"It is my opinion that the dismissal of (Mohammad Nizar) by his royal highness or anyone else" is never allowed by the Perak constitution," said Justice Abd Aziz Abd Rahim.
"It seems to me that once the (chief minister) is appointed he is answerable only to the state of Perak legislative assembly and no one else," he said. The judge also ordered Zambry and his officials to vacate their offices.
Perak was one of five states won by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's People's Alliance coalition in the March 2008 general elections.
But in February, Najib Razak — who became prime minister last month — orchestrated the defection of three Perak legislators from Anwar's alliance, and the National Front moved to form a government in the state with the help of the sultan's decision.
Mohammad Nizar went to court on the grounds that the decision was unconstitutional and that the sultan should have first called a vote of confidence in the assembly before dismissing him.
"It is a victory for the people," Mohammad Nizar said after the verdict.
His rival did not immediately make a statement.
Mohammad Nizar said he will now meet with the sultan to ask for the state parliament to be dissolved so fresh elections can be called.
"We are not clinging to power," he said, acknowledging his coalition has lost the majority in the state parliament because of the defections.
The struggle for control of Perak sparked a bitter feud between Anwar and Najib, who is struggling to revive his coalition's popularity, which has slumped amid complaints of corruption, economic mismanagement and racial tensions.
But Najib's move has come under intense scrutiny, raising complaints he is silencing dissent in violation of a campaign pledge to allow more openness.