Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Monday he is in talks with the party of ex-premier Najib Razak, who is in jail for corruption, to form the next government after an inconclusive election.
Anwar’s multi-ethnic coalition, which campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, won 82 seats in Saturday's election, the most of any bloc but still short of the majority needed to form government.
Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia's biggest economies, has had three changes of government in as many years, underscoring recent political instability.
Saturday's election offered no immediate solution to that impasse, only more of the political horsetrading that have characterised recent polls.
"I am still very optimistic that we will be able to form a government, more transparent, more democratic and to safeguard the interests of the people in Malaysia," Anwar told a news conference.
Another bloc, headed by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin, has also claimed it has enough backing to form government with the support of the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Malaysia's king is poised to break the stalemate. Parties have been told to submit their preferred prime minister and coalition partners to the king's palace, with a deadline extended to 2:00 pm local time (0600 GMT) Tuesday.
Anwar spoke after holding formal talks with the incumbent ruling bloc Barisan Nasional, which is dominated by Najib's graft-tainted United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
He said the talks with his old foes were predicated on him becoming the prime minister, a dream he has held for more than two decades.
An agreement with UMNO would give Anwar an extra 30 seats for a simple majority of 112.
UMNO dominated Malaysian politics for decades but registered its worst election performance since independence in 1957.
-'Court is court'-
It also suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2018 election due to public anger over the 1MDB graft scandal that involved billions of dollars of state funds.
Najib, who was at the centre of the scandal, is serving a 12-year jail term.
Anwar had campaigned on a promise to fight corruption, an issue that has come into sharper focus as Malaysians struggle with soaring food prices.
Asked about pending corruption cases involving more UMNO leaders, he said he would leave it to the justice system.
"Court is court. The judiciary must be free from the executive," Anwar said.
The apparent contradiction in Anwar seeking support from a corruption-tainted party was not lost on political observers.
"Anwar and his coalition must thread the discussion of a unity government carefully so as not to alienate its supporters," said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director at BowerGroupAsia.
- Big gains for Islamists -
PAS become the largest party in Muhyiddin's bloc after Saturday's vote, triggering worries about its influence on national policy.
The party, for example, forced the cancellation of an annual craft beer festival in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in 2017.
Two women convicted of having lesbian sex were also caned in front of more than 100 spectators in a PAS-ruled state the following year.
"I will see first if they abolish things like gambling and alcohol. I know in Islam, Muslims cannot do these but you cannot override non-Muslims' enjoyment,” said warehouse manager Leonard Tan, 56, adding that he would migrate if the business environment was affected.
"If the direction is to close the activities that bring in revenue, it will scare off investors," he said.
Islamist conservatism has been creeping into Malaysian society and politics for years, with ultra-conservatives eroding its traditionally moderate brand of Islam.
The majority of Malaysia's 33 million people are Malay and Muslim, but it is also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.