Current Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s first meeting of Parliament this year ended as quickly as it began on May 18 in an unprecedented one-day sitting, nominally to protect lawmakers against the spread of Covid-19. That’s at least what Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government maintains.

Elder statesmen and ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, who yesterday sat on opposition benches for the first time in his decades-long political career, contends the truncated sitting was to stymie debate and prevent a planned no-confidence vote that would have tested the legislature’s support of Muhyiddin’s three-month-old premiership.

Opposed camps have been locked in a bitter contest since the country’s political battle lines were redrawn in late February, when a tussle for power led to the surprise collapse of Mahathir’s governing coalition, triggering the nonagenarian leader’s resignation and the royal appointment of his erstwhile deputy, Muhyiddin, as premier.

The rivalry between the two is set to intensify as their factions vie to consolidate leadership within Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, a political party both co-founded in 2016 along with Mukhriz Mahathir, the former prime minister’s son, who was days ago toppled as chief minister of the state of Kedah in a political tit-for-tat.

Critics, meanwhile, have taken Muhyiddin to task for partnering with corruption-tainted politicians and regard his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition as a “backdoor” government whose power grab overturned the results of the 2018 general election vote that brought Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to power at the ballot box.

Since being sworn-in as premier on March 1, Muhyiddin has been under growing pressure to prove his administration’s legitimacy, and surviving a no-confidence motion would give his government a firmer footing, observers say. Parliament’s seating plan showed the total number of government lawmakers at 114 of 222, giving the premier a razor-thin majority.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin unveils his new cabinet members at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“Symbolically, the failure to hold a vote of confidence is a failure for Muhyiddin,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute. “It doesn’t strengthen confidence in this government, and it affects the credibility of Malaysia’s political institutions and the current leadership.”

A speech by Malaysia’s constitutional monarch was the sole event of Monday’s session. Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, directly addressed the country’s political crisis and cautioned lawmakers in both camps to refrain from politicking in the midst of a national health emergency.

“I would like to advise not to drag this country into another political uncertainty at a time when the people are facing hardship as a result of the [Covid-19] pandemic,” said the ruler. “It is also, for this reason, my government had decided to set the Parliament sitting for one day with my speech as the only agenda.”

Remarking on his constitutional discretion to appoint a lawmaker to the role of prime minister, the Agong said he appointed Muhyiddin after finding that he had “gained the confidence of the majority” in Parliament’s lower house. The ruler also added that he had asked Mahathir not to resign in February, “but he was firm in his decision.”

Muhyiddin previously accused Mahathir of triggering the crisis when he tendered a surprise resignation on February 24, while the latter claims he stepped down after being betrayed by supporters who opted to leave the PH coalition in favor of a new alliance with the scandal-plagued United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its allies.

Bersatu itself was founded as a political alternative to UMNO and as part of PH helped bring about the end of its uninterrupted six-decade rule. While supporters of Muhyiddin threw their weight behind his PN coalition, Mahathir’s faction continues to support PH and wants to pull Bersatu out of its PN alliance.

“It is unprecedented for the party which leads the government to have an opposition bloc within the same party, sitting at the opposite side of the government in Parliament,” noted Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod, a political analyst and legal adviser of the International Islamic University Malaysia.

Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and Anwar Ibrahim (L) during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP/Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

Despite trading barbs after the PH government’s collapse, Mahathir and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim remain allies. On May 9, the two-year anniversary of their coalition’s historic electoral win, the pair issued a statement vowing to “rise up once more and return the people’s mandate to the rightful owners.”

The precise terms of their renewed cooperation have yet to materialize, and deep mistrust of Mahathir lingers among Anwar’s ranks owing to the internal friction that built up within PH during its stint in power over the nonagenarian’s refusal to set a date for a promised handover of the premiership to Anwar.

“My understanding is that this is a compromise,” said Welsh. “Mahathir is leading the front with calls for a vote of no confidence, while Anwar is taking the role in terms of Parliament, but I think it has yet been unspecified who would be the prime ministerial candidate and I think there are differences with Pakatan Harapan on who that should be.”

A source close to the former premier told Asia Times that Mahathir’s camp is of the view that his premiership ended “prematurely” and his supporters wish to see cooperation with PH premised on the previously agreed-to understanding that Mahathir would serve for up to three years, a notion that some in PH would undoubtedly now find difficult to accept.

“[Mahathir] would come in and serve one year or even less time and pass it back to the Pakatan Harapan presidential council to determine how to go about the succession. That’s how they are looking at it,” said the source, who requested anonymity, when asked about the nonagenarian’s plan for yet another political comeback.

For the moment, Mahathir’s guns are trained on Muhyiddin, who he accuses of “blocking the democratic process” and overseeing “a partial dictatorship.” It isn’t clear with whom rank-and-file Bersatu members place their allegiances as the fraught factional split widens.  

The party’s upcoming internal polls have been delayed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and rumors are rife that Mahathir and his son could soon be expelled from Bersatu before that electoral contest takes place. Mukhriz is challenging Muhyiddin for the party’s presidency, while Mahathir has retained his party chairmanship uncontested.

Mukhriz Mahathir speaks to the press after winning election in Kedah state, October 5,, 2018. Photo: Twitter/Sayuti Zainudin

Welsh sees the Bersatu elections as “arguably the first test of legitimacy for Muhyiddin [since] he did not have one in Parliament,” and how those elections play out will determine Mahathir’s role in the political process. “This is crucial in whether the contestation continues to intensify, as it has in the last few weeks,” remarked the Malaysia expert.

The factional feud played out most recently in Mahathir’s home state of Kedah, where 55-year-old Mukhriz was until recently in power as chief minister. He stepped down on Sunday after PH lawmakers in the state assembly defected to Muhyiddin’s camp, which deprived Mukhriz of majority support and triggered a change of government.

It was the second time Mukhriz lost hold of the state’s top post. In 2016, he similarly lost his majority in the state assembly as his father locked horns with then-premier Najib Razak over his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Mukhriz and Muhyiddin, then Najib’s deputy, were sacked from UMNO thereafter for speaking out about 1MDB. 

“What has happened in Kedah is not something that is unexpected, so to speak,” said a former PH advisor who requested anonymity. “What was quite a surprise was that Mukhriz had been able to maintain his position this long given the political divide and horse-trading that has been evolving from the day this new government was set up.”

Analysts interpret the fact that Mukhriz’ ouster happened only recently rather than much earlier as evidence of an olive branch from Muhyiddin to Mahathir, who had been brothers-in-arms in their push to unseat Najib. Obtaining Mahathir’s blessing to lead would also arguably be of symbolic importance to Muhyiddin in his bid to consolidate power.

“Muhyiddin in some ways has been really soft on Mahathir, he did not choose to be as confrontational with the hope that Mahathir and Muhkriz’ faction would come back into the fold,” Welsh told Asia Times. “There are still some people around him that would like that to happen, and in Malaysian politics anything is possible.”

But with Bersatu’s factional divide ratcheting up, many believe that olive branch has been rebuffed. With his political legitimacy on the line at upcoming party elections, Welsh believes Muhyiddin “may even choose to withdraw from the contest altogether” if he and his supporters sense they might not win.

“Bersatu’s polls indicate more broadly that the infighting within the Malay community is real, that there is intensive competition,” she said. “People argued that the PH coalition was bogged down by politicking. Bersatu’s polls show that the public politicking within the Malay nationalist party continues. There is intensive oligarchic competition in Malaysia.”

Demonstrators protest against Muhyiddin Yassin’s swearing in on March 1, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Chris Jung

To gain an edge in the tussle for power, Muhyiddin appears to have given his PN coalition partners carte blanche to takeover state governments held by PH, while also courting lawmakers in his coalition by appointing several to top decision-making positions in government-linked corporations (GLCs).

“The government always has the advantages of incumbency, and Muhyiddin is wielding power and patronage like nobody’s business so that people from UMNO decide to join Bersatu in support of him,” the former PH advisor told Asia Times. “He will be able to sway quite a fair portion of Bersatu members back to his side.”

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), believes Muhyiddin’s greatest worry isn’t Mahathir’s no-confidence motion, but rather “it is the various undercurrents within his own coalition, especially UMNO’s subtle moves to unsettle him while keeping the ruling coalition alive.”

On the eve of Parliament’s one-day sitting, PN component parties announced their intent to formalize the previously loose coalition with a memorandum of understanding (MoU), a somewhat unexpected development considering recent remarks by top UMNO leaders candidly describing their participation in the coalition as merely a means to an end.

“It remains to be seen in days to come if all those mentioned in the supposedly joint statement would eventually own up to the supposed alliance, and to what degree,” said Oh.

It is not clear, however, whether PN component parties will move to register their grouping as an official political entity. Observers, moreover, generally view UMNO as being uncomfortable with its second-fiddle position in PN, raising the possibility of further largesse and political concessions made to keep the hinges in place on Muhyiddin’s “backdoor” government.