Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s clock is ticking, and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is holding it.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin and his six-month old Perikatan Nasional government face a crucial budget vote now scheduled for next week. Failure to pass the 2021 budget would be akin to the vote of no confidence that the current speaker of parliament has been delaying. If the budget vote fails, then the King (Yang di-pertuan Agong) may have to step in, again, to appoint a new prime minister who he feels has the confidence of a majority of members of parliament. Many would-be candidates are circling with intent. The King may also choose to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections. Or, he could declare a national emergency.
All these options are bad for Malaysia’s pandemic-battered economy, particularly with the country experiencing a new a spike in Covid-19 infections. Another election would be costly, while more political uncertainty or emergency rule would not inspire investor confidence.
Late last month, the prime minister requested that the King declare a state of emergency so that the government could effectively tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, and delay any parliamentary votes. Instead, the King advised members of parliament to stop politicking and focus on the problems at hand. A state of emergency entails the suspension of parliament, giving the executive a freer hand to rule and pass legislations. The state of emergency, if passed, means Muhyiddin can rule without the fear of a no confidence vote.
With a single-seat majority, any Perikatan Nasional member who votes against or abstains from the looming budget vote could topple the government. Tengku Razaleigh from UMNO (United Malays National Organization) – the largest party in the ruling coalition led by Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party – has indicated he may well do so. This is the 83-year-old’s last chance to be prime minister. 1987 was the last time he was so close. Then, he was defeated in the UMNO presidential election by Dr Mahathir Mohamad by only 43 votes (761-718).
With a single-seat majority, any Perikatan Nasional member who votes against or abstains from the looming budget vote could topple the government.
Razaleigh is the leading figure in one of the two UMNO factions expressing displeasure with Muhyiddin and Perikatan Nasional. Lately, Razaleigh has become more vocal, declaring that UMNO should be the leading party in the government, and not play second fiddle to Bersatu. His recent meetings with former prime minister Mahathir, who has been calling for a test of Muhyiddin’s level of support, are another sign that he and his supporters are ready to break ranks with Perikatan Nasional. On 13 October, the King gave an audience to Razaleigh to ascertain his claim of having enough support to form the next government.
Muhyiddin helped create the other displeased UMNO faction. The prime minister insisted that only UMNO members of parliament free from court cases can be appointed to his cabinet. This stance has been received positively by the public as a sign that Muhyiddin is serious in battling corruption. However, as a result, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi did not make the cut, alongside other senior UMNO leaders such as secretary general Ahmad Maslan, and former prime minister Najib Razak. The result is that this group’s loyalty to Muhyiddin and Perikatan Nasional is far from secure. There are rumours that some parliamentarians from this camp are willing to support opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as the new prime minister. On 13 October, the King also gave an audience to Anwar to ascertain his claim of having enough support to form the next government.
The remaining UMNO faction is made up of Muhyiddin loyalists, and most of them hold positions in the cabinet.
The above-the-ground roots of this current political instability grew from the results of the last Malaysian national election (GE14) on 9 May 2018. GE14 was indeed historic for it ended UMNO’s uninterrupted rule in Malaysia since independence. UMNO governed Malaysia for 61 years from 1957 until the fateful 2018 election that saw UMNO pushed to the opposition benches by the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by the former UMNO heavyweights and political foes Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir, then leader of Bersatu, became prime minister again while Anwar as de facto head of PKR, Pakatan Harapan’s largest party, waited in the wings. UMNO though only remained out of power for two years as it joined forces with Muhyiddin earlier this year in the Perikatan Nasional coalition that claimed support of a majority of parliament and took power. Unlike in the past though, UMNO is not at the helm of the ruling coalition. Despite having the largest number of seats in the ruling coalition, UMNO leaders are not appointed in key cabinet posts (such as home affairs, finance, and education), or the deputy prime minister post.
Muhyiddin came to power by bringing UMNO back into the ruling coalition. To stay in power, he will have to quickly unite UMNO’s factions behind him. Ceding to UMNO’s demands for more power within Perikatan Nasional may be the price to pay.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.