The defeat of the Perikatan Nasional government in Perak is a worrying precedent for the coalition at the federal level.
For the past weeks, Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government weathered many a political storm. In November, all eyes were on whether the prime minister could withstand a vote of confidence in parliament. In the end, no motion was tabled, and even the Budget was easily passed due to disunity in the opposition ranks. The premier survived the critical parliamentary session relatively unscathed.
Subsequently, however, the unexpected came. Last week, Perak chief minister Ahmad Faizal Azumu was overwhelmingly defeated in a no-confidence motion, which led to the fall of the PN state government. In the 59-seat assembly, he received only 10 votes, with 48 assemblymen voting against him and one spoiling his vote of the 48. 24 were from UMNO and the other 24 hailed from the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition (one UMNO assemblyman spoilt his vote).
The number of assemblymen who voted en masse against Ahmad Faizal tells a story in itself. Previously, PN and its allies – consisting of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, UMNO, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Gerakan and an independent – held 35 seats. The PH coalition – comprising the Democratic Action Party, Parti Amanah Negara and Parti Keadilan Rakyat – had 24. What tilted the balance against Ahmad Faizal was the fact that UMNO broke ranks with Bersatu. Therefore, the burning question in the minds of many Malaysians will be whether PN will suffer a similar fate at the federal level? After all, UMNO has far more MPs in the federal parliament than Muhyiddin’s Bersatu (38 UMNO versus 31 Bersatu).
The blame for PN’s defeat in Perak, however, cannot be laid fully at the feet of UMNO. As Perak’s chief minister, Ahmad Faizal committed several missteps. Among others, he ignored certain UMNO quarters which had asked for key positions in the state government. To begin with, his standing in the state was already weak. In GE 14, he won his Chenderiang seat by a meagre 39 votes against a candidate backed by Barisan Nasional and PAS. Faizal Azumu was PH Chief Minister and later PN’s. Many were surprised how he eventually became PH’s and later PN’s chief minister candidate for the state.
… the bigger issue is the possibility of an informal pact between UMNO and DAP – two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Previously, there was speculation that Bersatu could vacate the Perak chief ministership to reciprocate UMNO’s forgoing the Sabah chief ministership to Bersatu. But this will be a tall order for Bersatu, since it would have meant sacrificing its deputy president.
That said, the bigger issue is the possibility of an informal pact between UMNO and DAP – two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, Perak UMNO’s decision to cooperate with the DAP, its arch nemesis, has caught many observers by surprise. The Chinese-dominated DAP has been PN’s punching bag since it took power in March after the Sheraton Move. The parties in PN also justified the coalition’s existence by playing up Malay-Muslim unity to counter DAP’s multiracial and secularist stance. The DAP’s Howard Lee – a rising star in the opposition ranks and known among the Malays for his thick Perak Malay accent and deep understanding of Malay culture – was a key player in Ahmad Faizal’s departure. In the past few weeks, Mr Lee worked hard to deliver the shock result by negotiating adroitly with various groups.
His stratagem in Perak may also reshape federal politics. The unprecedented UMNO-DAP cooperation may pave the way for a similar collaboration in Putrajaya. If DAP can replicate its cooperation with UMNO in the federal parliament, particularly with the so-called “clean” UMNO faction whose members are not facing any pending court cases, Muhyiddin’s fate as premier may well follow Ahmad Faizal’s in Perak. The only hinderance is that UMNO has never been in a coalition with the DAP before; it has only worked with non-Malay parties such as MCA and Gerakan. Moreover, its previous anti-DAP messages were so strong that it would take some effort to convince the party’s rank and file of the merits of this collaboration.
In sum, Ahmad Faizal’s ouster as Perak chief minister has dented the PN project. UMNO’s loyalty to its partners PAS and Bersatu is now in question. Already, cracks are showing in the UMNO-PAS pact at the federal level. In 2019, PAS joined UMNO in the Muafakat Nasional pact. After a series of back-to-back by-election victories in 2019 and 2020, there was a lot of excitement among UMNO and PAS supporters that Muafakat Nasional was bearing fruit. However, PAS recently joined the formalised PN coalition led by Bersatu without UMNO’s blessings. Even though UMNO is part of the PN government, it merely supports the prime minister but does not formally approve of the coalition.
The Perak episode has put PAS in disarray. PAS had burned bridges with DAP and PKR. If abandoned by UMNO, PAS might just be left together in an uneasy alliance with Bersatu – a party which has already been branded as traitors.
It will be interesting to see whether the vote of confidence in the Perak assembly was against Faizal Azumu’s leadership or PN proper. PN can still stand in Perak if it chooses a chief minister within its ranks. UMNO, having the largest number of seats in the assembly, will prefer to choose one from its ranks. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the party is open to working with all parties, including the opposition, to form the government in Perak state. Bersatu leaders have already expressed disappointment with this episode as it was not consulted. A PN break-up in Perak may trigger spell uncertainty in Peninsula Malaysian politics, all the way to Putrajaya.
A collapse in PN could also reset the political equations in Johor and Melaka. In both states, no political party is dominant enough to hold the fort on its own. Given that political coalitions are losing their significance, PN might also fall there. Granted, PN’s defeat so far is in only one state, but the recent ructions in Perak may well portend something more precipitous in Putrajaya.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.