The collapse of the UMNO-led state government in Malacca throws up many questions about the ensuing feud between UMNO and Bersatu.
In Malaysia, the Ismail Sabri Yaakob government presents an interesting study into how rival Malay political factions can reach a compromise. Ten of the 11 United Malay National Organization (UMNO) leaders who had withdrawn their support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin agreed to nominate Ismail Sabri — from a competing UMNO faction — instead of naming one of their own for the top post. Their concession keeps the Perikatan Nasional government structure intact. Muhyiddin’s allies too did not engage in tit-for-tat. Muhyiddin and his fellow Bersatu MPs also backed Ismail Sabri, even if this means working with the ten UMNO leaders who conspired to topple him.
On 4 October, four assemblymen of the Malacca legislature withdrew their support for chief minister Sulaiman Md Ali, who is from UMNO. This has no direct implications on the federal government, but it casts doubt on the political truce within UMNO. Of the four assemblymen, two are from UMNO, including former chief minister Idris Haron. The third assemblyman hails from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), the party of former premier Muhyiddin; the other is an independent. Previously, the UMNO-led Perikatan Nasional government in Malacca had 17 seats, while the opposition Pakatan Harapan held 11 seats. Fifteen seats are the required threshold to form the state government. This is the second time since the 2018 election that Malacca will witness a change of government. In March 2020, Perikatan Nasional wrestled power from Pakatan Harapan also through defections of four assemblymen. Before 2018, the Malacca assembly only had an UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government.
The current Malacca crisis demonstrates how UMNO is being riven by conflict both within and without. Within the party, the elites continue to battle it out. A silent war between UMNO and Bersatu has also festered. All this contradicts the King’s message during his address in parliament in September for politicians to lower the political temperature, focus on rebuilding the economy, and tackle the Covid-19 crisis. In Malacca, the governor dissolved the assembly, even before any party could present an alternative solution. Adly Zahari, Malacca’s Pakatan Harapan leader and former chief minister, said the governor should have interviewed the 15 assemblymen who did not support Sulaiman — as per the state constitution. Whether an election is eventually called is contingent upon the election commission’s approval to allow one during the pandemic. Currently, by-elections for two federal seats are deferred, and so is the Sarawak state election.
Malacca is the smallest legislative assembly after Perlis. Still, this development can send ripples to other state assemblies and even Putrajaya. If Malacca can hold an election amidst the pandemic, some will likely request to expedite the general election due in July 2023.
Wiping out Bersatu in Malacca is not in line with the spirit of the Perikatan Nasional at the federal level; after all, Bersatu is displaying a lot of goodwill in keeping Ismail Sabri in power.
The Malacca episode throws up many questions. To begin with, the underlying motivations behind the withdrawals of support are unclear. Equally fuzzy is which UMNO faction the defectors are aligned to. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid has threatened that disciplinary action would be taken against those who disobeyed the party’s directive: to be loyal to a government led by UMNO and BN. He was also quick to call for a snap poll to resolve the stalemate. Ahmad Zahid’s vague warning was directed at Idris for toppling the UMNO government in Malacca. But his reference for UMNO members to abide by party discipline can also be a disguised instruction for UMNO to contest the polls on his terms. After all, he remains the party’s president. Coincidently, Ahmad Zahid said that UMNO would contest all the seats it won in the last one in the upcoming general election, dismissing the likelihood of any seat negotiation with Bersatu.
The events in Malacca will be interesting for those who wish to speculate how UMNO and Bersatu will align in GE15. UMNO is the most dominant party in Malacca and wants to remain so. If a state election is called, whether it will contest the two seats currently under Bersatu remains uncertain. Wiping out Bersatu in Malacca is not in line with the spirit of the Perikatan Nasional at the federal level; after all, Bersatu is displaying a lot of goodwill in keeping Ismail Sabri in power. Bersatu is unlikely to budge, even though it knows that the UMNO grassroots machinery in Malacca is unmatched. Bersatu will not agree to lose its two seats in Malacca without a fight, given that it already has too few seats to cling on to. Taking things further, Bersatu chairman Muhyiddin Yassin has thrown down the gauntlet, and has told UMNO openly that his party is prepared to duke it out with its bigger rival in the next polls if all negotiations fail. The Malacca case will also demonstrate who has control over the UMNO machinery at the local level. While Ismail Sabri is the prime minister, he is neither the party’s president nor its deputy president. Traditionally, the UMNO president had been the prime minister of Malaysia since independence until 2018. Judging from the last UMNO general assembly, the majority of UMNO branches prefer the party to contest the next election without Bersatu. Ismail Sabri may have some convincing to do at the grassroots level in Malacca if he wishes to replicate his UMNO-Bersatu alliance at the federal level. But Bersatu is only one of his many problems as he seeks to hold on to power — UMNO still must face a united Pakatan Harapan in the state.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.