Bersatu, the party of Malaysia’s prime minister, is running out of options to keep itself at the reins of power.
Last September, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim declared that he commanded a “strong, formidable and convincing majority” to replace the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. In December, the government’s majority was again put to the test when the parliament sat to vote for the budget. In the 222-seat parliament, 112 is the minimum number of seats to form the government, but the RM333.5 billion budget was recently passed with a 111-108 vote.
Now that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the largest party in the ruling coalition – is staring at the possibility of breaking up, PN is now facing the biggest threat to its rule. The Malaysian King’s state of emergency declaration on 12 January – due to the rise of Covid-19 cases – is a temporary respite for the government. The state of emergency will expire on 1 August. This means politicking and jockeying for power will be deferred till then.
In March 2020, PN – made up of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, UMNO, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and supported by ethnic based parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Sarawak based parties GPS – seized power with only a two-seat majority. The death of one UMNO MP in November 2019, followed by UMNO MP Ahmad Jazlan Yaacob’s latest decision to withdraw his support for the prime minister, mean that PN only has 111 MPs. Depending on how UMNO veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah defines his status in parliament, the country has a hung parliament of 110-110 (two seats are vacant, so the total number of MPs now is 220). Razaleigh excused himself from the recent budget session, and also held a joint press conference with opposition Mahathir Mohamad. With only 31 MPs, Bersatu is not the largest party in the government, since UMNO has 38 MPs.
The recent squabbles among UMNO leaders has weakened the Muhyiddin Yassin government further. On 5 January, federal territories minister Annuar Musa, an UMNO MP, was sacked as the secretary general of Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition which UMNO, MCA and MIC are part of. In his counterattack, Annuar claims that several UMNO leaders signed statutory declarations supporting Anwar Ibrahim to be the next prime minister. UMNO leaders later affirmed that whether the party will continue to be in the Muhyiddin coalition will be decided during the UMNO general assembly to be held at the end of January.
There are at least two competing camps in UMNO now. The first is led by party president Ahmad Zahid, who feels that UMNO should be calling the shots in PN. He is also signaling that UMNO will contest the upcoming election without Bersatu, arguing that this is the sentiment of UMNO’s rank and file. At a recent meeting with 191 of the party’s powerful division chiefs, 143 want the party to break its alliance with Bersatu come the next polls.
The second camp is made up of UMNO members who prefer the status quo. They compose of mainly the ministers in the Muhyiddin cabinet. Annuar is part of this camp. Their call is: “No [to supporting] Anwar, no [to being part of a coalition with] DAP.” This camp alleges that Ahmad Zahid’s camp is open to joining the DAP (UMNO’s arch-nemesis) to form the next government. The recent change in the Perak government strengthens this argument: UMNO and DAP collaborated to end the reign of a sitting chief minister who happened to be a Bersatu vice-president.
A snap election may be not be ideal for Bersatu because UMNO has the upper hand. UMNO has the stronger party machinery and richer resources.
Whether a general election is called sooner or later, Bersatu’s future is in limbo unless it can strike new alliances. In a scenario where the election is delayed, Bersatu must cajole opposition parliamentarians to join its ranks to make up for the likelihood of some UMNO MPs defecting. Bersatu’s options are limited as it is unlikely to make amends with former members Mahathir Mohamad and Syed Saddiq, who have started new parties Pejuang and Muda respectively. The Registrar of Societies’ (RoS) recent decision to decline Pejuang and Muda’s registrations have angered both men further. It is also unlikely that Bersatu will gain support from Warisan after the government triggered a by-election in Sabah last year which led to the party’s downfall. To rub salt into Bersatu’s wounds, there is also the possibility that all – not some – UMNO members will leave PN. Some UMNO ministers have intimated that they would toe the line the party leadership’s decision, meaning Ahmad Zahid’s. Some quarters are suggesting that if Muhyiddin wants to salvage the situation, he should consider appointing a deputy-prime minister from UMNO.
A snap election may not be ideal for Bersatu because UMNO has the upper hand. UMNO has the stronger party machinery and richer resources. On the other hand, about a third of the current Bersatu MPs were defectors from PKR, including Azmin Ali and Zuraidah Kamaruddin. In the next election, their support will be tested in front of the PKR grassroots, who may be angered by their decision to abandon Anwar Ibrahim. Moreover, with Mahathir no longer in Bersatu, the Malays may no longer see Bersatu as the rival that checks UMNO, which was the case in the 2018 election. PAS, on the other hand, is more secure and comfortable with its support base in Kelantan and Terengganu; it could retain the two states with or without UMNO and Bersatu. Essentially, Bersatu’s political survival hinges on whether Pakatan Harapan can remain united and the opposition coalition’s willingness to work with UMNO defectors. To be sure, the opposition is also not as united as seen. Whichever way the political cookie crumbles, however, the odds are stacked against Bersatu. It has the state of emergency period to get it right.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.