Malaysia Prime Minister Muhyiddin pulled off a historic coup in February last year, when he ditched the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition to form a new government. Eighteen months on, he might soon be getting a taste of his own medicine.
As the saying goes, what goes around comes around. Eighteen months ago, Muhyiddin Yassin and his allies pulled off the storied Sheraton Move, leading a group of Members of Parliament (MPs) out of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to form a new government. In effect, he betrayed Pakatan and replaced it with his own Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which is packed with MPs from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
On Tuesday, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that the UMNO Supreme Council had unanimously withdrawn support for the premier. The declaration has sent shockwaves across the country again. The UMNO defections mean that the prime minister might soon get a taste of his own medicine. Many observers now expect a repeat of the Sheraton Move which led to the downfall of the PH government.
Flanking Ahmad Zahid at his press conference were several party leaders, including veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Secretary-General Ahmad Maslan, and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Azalina Othman. In all, at least 8 parliamentarians (MPs) from UMNO and a Cabinet minister – energy and natural resources minister Shamsul Anuar Nasarah – have withdrawn their support for PN. Mathematically, it would seem that Muhyiddin has lost his majority in Parliament, as these defections would mean that his PN coalition would have the support of around 106 MPs at most, out of the 222-seat Parliament.
In his address to the nation after his audience with the King yesterday, Muhyiddin sought to put a brave face on it. He stressed that he still has majority support in Parliament and promised he would allow a no-confidence vote to proceed in September to prove it. Nonetheless, many observers are skeptical as to whether Muhyiddin would genuinely proceed with the vote in September, or whether this is another delay tactic to encourage crossovers from Opposition MPs. The key question at the back of peoples’ minds now: who might be the opposition MPs who would cross the floor to PN and make up for the 8 UMNO departures to keep Muhyiddin in power.
For now, the future of the country’s politics will be decided by the politicians and rulers, and not the ordinary people, since the dissolution of Parliament is unlikely given the current Covid-19 crisis. The Sarawak election, due to happen this year, has also been postponed after the King extended the Covid-19 state of emergency in the state till February 2022.
Despite the defections, PM Muhyiddin still has some breathing room — in fact, the status quo will remain until the Opposition can get its act together. The withdrawal of the UMNO MPs from PN does not necessarily imply that the Opposition automatically commands the majority. Neither does it mean that Anwar Ibrahim, as the Leader of the Opposition, will become the prime minister.
Currently, the opposition MPs in Parliament include non-PH MPs, such as those from Warisan, Pejuang, and Muda. Apart from Anwar, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Warisan president Shafie Apdal may have something up their sleeves and have other leadership permutations in mind. Collectively, their parties make up 12 MPs who are not part of PH. At one time, Mahathir had suggested Shafie and not Anwar as the Opposition’s prime minister candidate. Mahathir had also previously suggested forming a unity government or to establish the National Operations Council (Mageran). These ideas had previously fallen on deaf ears and were also not supported by the King. But with the latest developments, it would seem that Mahathir’s kingmaker status has now been given a new lease of life. And if the political impasse is not solved in September, Mahathir’s suggestions could well be revisited again.
Despite the defections, PM Muhyiddin still has some breathing room — in fact, the status quo will remain until the Opposition can get their act together.
Muhyiddin has promised that the Parliament sitting in September will be the platform to test his support, since neither he nor the Palace has disclosed which opposition MPs have made up for the UMNO defections. Unless the names are publicly revealed, the Opposition will not take it easy. Furthermore, Muhyiddin’s timeline does not mean his government can necessarily last until then. There can be more resignations from UMNO, or the Opposition can decide on a prime ministerial candidate through statutory declarations. The latter remains a tall order, unless Mahathir and Anwar can bury the hatchet.
But one unexplored theory is this: with the more tainted UMNO members (commonly referred to as the “court cluster” for having pending court cases against them) out of the PN, some from the Opposition can argue that PN is now “cleansed” of corrupt leaders. This could pave the way for PN to explore new coalition permutations and potentially co-opt other opposition members, including members of the original Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia but not part of the current government, such as Mahathir, Mukhriz Mahathir, Maszlee Malik and Syed Saddiq. For the record, in 2020, Mahathir had mulled over whether Bersatu should leave Pakatan Harapan. In the end, he disapproved, since such a move would involve collaboration with the “court cluster” — but this did not stop Muhyiddin from leading a group of Bersatu MPs to cross over to Perikatan.
Mahathir and Muhyiddin relations, however, have since gone downhill. Muhyiddin removed Mahathir from Bersatu and his son Mukhriz as Kedah Chief Minister, and Mahathir has been scathing in his open criticism of Muhyiddin’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis. If any of Mahathir’s camp in the Opposition now opts to support PN, this would be another bizarre U-turn for Malaysian politics, and would be most difficult to communicate to already disillusioned Malaysians. But in Malaysian politics, one has to learn to expect plots to twist and turn in the most unexpected ways.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.