Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister, on Monday suffered his biggest political setback since taking power last month as the country’s high court said his government’s takeover of Perak state, in which he played a key role, was illegal.
Perak, one of Malaysia’s largest states, has been at the centre of a constitutional crisis since February, when the opposition-held state government was brought down after three state assemblymen defected to support Mr Najib’s National Front alliance.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance claimed that the move was unconstitutional. The high court agreed that normal parliamentary procedures had not been followed.
Perak could face fresh state elections, with most analysts believing that the opposition could gain a bigger majority in the state assembly because of a public backlash against Mr Najib’s political tactics.
The Pakatan Rakyat came to power in Perak in March 2008 when the opposition won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 state governments at the general elections. Nazir Jamaluddin, who became chief minister of Perak, won a state by-election last month in what was seen as a strong vote of public support for his stance against Mr Najib’s government.
Ipoh, the normally sleepy capital of Perak, was the scene of bitter clashes last week as the state assembly held its first session since the political crisis erupted. The opposition speaker of the house was expelled from the chamber and police arrested dozens of protesters outside the building.
The court’s ruling is embarrassing to Sultan Azlan Shah, Perak’s royal ruler, who decided to appoint a National Front member as chief minister, replacing Mr Nazir, after the defections. The high court said the sultan should not have made the appointment in the absence of a vote of no confidence by the state assembly against Mr Nazir.
The opposition has called for elections to resolve the issue and the newly reinstated Mr Nazir is expected to meet the sultan on Tuesday to ask him to dissolve the assembly.
The sultan, who trained as a lawyer, has come under public criticism for his role since he is regarded as a constitutional expert and was a former lord president of the federal court. He served as Malaysia’s monarch in the early 1990s under the country’s system of rotating kingship among nine state sultans.
Mr Najib met the sultan shortly before the appointment of the new Perak chief minister was made in February and he is also believed to have played a role in persuading the opposition assemblymen to defect.
Critics said Mr Najib’s involvement was a return to the hardline political tactics of Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who was a mentor to Mr Najib.
The high court decision is seen as a sign of increased judicial independence.