SINGAPORE – Six months since his appointment as Malaysia’s premier, Muhyiddin Yassin now finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

With his ruling coalition of convenience mired in internecine strife, a new party launched by his bitterly estranged predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, threatens to weaken further his standing ahead of anticipated snap polls.

Though a general election is not due until late 2023, speculation is rising that a vote could be held within the next six months. Electoral considerations have already forced Muhyiddin to find new footing within a tangle of overlapping political alliances as he seeks a racially inclusive strategy to broaden his party’s appeal.

While Muhyiddin’s popularity has grown on his perceived as competent handling of Covid-19, open divisions in his informal Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing pact, the pandemic’s economic fallout and discontent over controversies involving ministers flouting virus control measures have ended his political honeymoon.

With a mere two-seat parliamentary majority, Muhyiddin found himself up against a wall when leaders from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the largest bloc in his coalition, said they would not formally join the PN coalition following the sentencing to jail of former UMNO leader and ex-premier Najib Razak for corruption in late July.

UMNO intends to continue supporting the government in Parliament, though not being bound to PN enables it to more easily force new elections. Analysts say UMNO’s leaders likely believe they can win back federal power without Muhyiddin due to their pervasive grassroots influence and historic appeal to the Malay Muslim majority.

But with UMNO’s president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, facing dozens of money laundering and bribery-related charges, it isn’t clear who the party would field as its candidate for premier if it withheld support for Muhyiddin staying on. If UMNO succeeds in recapturing federal power, critics fear Malaysia’s future would look much like its patronage-rife past.

With roots in the country’s independence movement, UMNO ruled consecutively for 61 years until losing at the ballot box in 2018 to the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, a multiethnic alliance voted in to bring democratic reforms, clean up endemic corruption and hold scandal-plagued top UMNO leaders to account.

Then aligned with Mahathir, Muhyiddin led the Ministry of Home Affairs while PH was in power. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, the party they co-founded in 2016 to oppose Najib’s UMNO-led government, accepted a slew of defectors from UMNO within its ranks, which deepened discord in the PH alliance.

Mahathir Mohamad in a grim mood after his ouster as prime minister. Photo: Facebook

Consigned to the opposition benches for the first time in its history, UMNO leaders pivoted away from Barisan Nasional (BN), their once-ruling alliance with various ethnic minority parties, in favor of a new electoral pact known as Muafakat Nasional (MN) with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist party that favors stricter sharia-based laws.

In a dramatic plot twist, Muhyiddin and other PH defectors abandoned the reformist coalition in late February as part of a dramatic gambit known as the “Sheraton Move”, opting instead to bring its defeated electoral opponents back into government by forming PN with backing from UMNO, PAS, its BN allies and East Malaysia parties.

“Bersatu was formed as a vehicle for splitting the Malay Muslim vote bloc that kept UMNO and BN in power for all those years,” said Amrita Malhi, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “But in the end, Bersatu rejoined the Malay Muslim political front that was gaining political momentum as PH began to falter.

“That front is now in government. That does not mean it can hold itself together, however, as it consists of several Malay Muslim parties competing for the same voters, which is generating conflict over resources such as money and seat allocations and over bigger questions like the place of race and religion in the nation’s politics,” she added.

Mahathir resigned from the premiership amid the tumult and has since directed his ire toward Muhyiddin, who he accuses of “betrayal” and overseeing “a partial dictatorship.” Following months of uneasy compromise with his alliance partners, Muhyiddin’s failure to consolidate PN into a formal cooperative arrangement now underlines his vulnerability.

When Bersatu recently confirmed that it would formally join MN, the UMNO-PAS alliance, analysts saw the move as a concession to UMNO that would, in fact, put the 73-year-old premier and his party at a disadvantage in seat negotiations. Plainly, the move was an admission that Muhyiddin, despite holding the top job, has no other political card to play. 

“I believe this is the best option for Bersatu,” said Muhyiddin in an August 15 statement. “We believe, by being in a coalition with UMNO and PAS, and other parties in a grand coalition, the majority of the people’s support will be with us. This will pave the way to political stability for the country.”

Muhyiddin’s prospects for retaining the premiership after the next election are in doubt. Analysts think it is unlikely he will be allowed to chair MN, particularly as UMNO-PAS’ grassroots members are known to oppose expanding the partnership from two to three considering that most Bersatu members previously defected from UMNO.

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

“Muhyiddin bringing Bersatu into the MN fold reflects the difficulty of navigating Malaysian social and political cleavages,” Malhi told Asia Times. “Given these frictions, there is no guarantee that Muhyiddin will be able to hold on to his position or avoid the internecine warfare that made the previous PH government so unstable.”

Despite agreeing to become MN’s third wheel, Muhyiddin has not abandoned efforts to formalize his 12-party PN coalition. PAS is one of only five parties that have so far agreed to formally join, likely as a hedging maneuver. But with Bersatu seen as lacking the electoral gravitas to win seats without cooperating with UMNO, PN’s future is highly uncertain.

“The common expectation is Bersatu as a small ship may sail better holding onto a big ship,” said Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid, an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. “Muhyiddin will continue to receive support, but politics is politics. The senior members of a dominant party may have more advantages than a newer and smaller minority party.”

In a bid to broaden its ethnically-exclusive support base, Muhyiddin recently proposed amendments to Bersatu’s constitution to allow non-Malays to hold leadership positions, a shift toward broader inclusion that would nominally reshape what has hitherto been a Malay Muslim party into a Malay-led multiethnic party.

“Bersatu is like a lotus, floating but with no roots deep in the ground, not like UMNO or PAS,” said Kartini. “Thus, it needs more support if it wants to survive in the long term. In that context, opening up its membership to non-Malays is not a surprising move. Democratically speaking, they are adding to the range of options that Malaysians can choose.”

At present, Bersatu allows non-Malays to join the party as associate members, though they are barred from holding leadership positions. The announcement coincided with a ceremony that saw International Trade and Industry Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali and a faction of his supporters officially accepted into Bersatu.

Azmin, a former PH senior minister and deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), is widely regarded as a key architect of the political coup that toppled PH and brought PN to power. Prior to his joining Bersatu, speculation had been rife that he would form a new multiethnic party to entice non-Malay PKR leaders into switching allegiances and crossing over into PN.

“We should not allow only one race to dictate. We are all Malaysians,” Azmin said at a press conference after being formally accepted into Bersatu. But analysts believe this messaging may not sit well with Bersatu’s grassroots members and others who would have to compete with non-Malay officer bearers for the limited party positions and honors.

Another factor has Bersatu on the ropes. Hundreds of its grassroots members, along with a handful state lawmakers and division leaders, have thrown their support behind 95-year-old Mahathir’s newly-established political party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (PPTA), or Pejuang, which he unveiled in an August 12 poem published on his personal blog.

A man attends a protest against a Malaysian government being formed without new elections, at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

The nonagenarian statesman’s latest ethnic Malay-centric party, whose name translates to “Warriors of the Homeland” in English, unveiled a shield-shaped logo when it submitted its application for official registration earlier this month. Pejuang’s anti-kleptocracy messaging is focused on fighting corruption and championing Malay interests.

Bersatu had been founded on identical principles and “set up to destroy the kleptocrats,” said Mahathir in an emotional statement that decried the betrayal of his former comrades who he alleged had abandoned their principles for posts and money. “Now it’s changed to save the kleptocrats,” he added in reference to Muhyiddin’s alliance with UMNO.

Mahathir, who had been Bersatu’s founding chairman, announced Pejuang after the Kuala Lumpur High Court dismissed a lawsuit he brought against his former party, which he claims wrongfully terminated his membership along with four others on August 7. Mahathir serves as Pejuang’s chairman, while his 55-year-old son, Mukhriz Mahathir, is its president.

Though the former premier concedes that his weeks-old party stands no chance of winning enough seats to form a government, Mahathir has raised hopes of becoming a kingmaker in the next general election so that whichever bloc vying to win power in Putrajaya will be reliant on Pejuang’s support, handing the 95-year-old leverage to shape policy.

Casting itself as an “independent” Malay party, Pejuang is not part of the opposition PH coalition that Mahathir previously led during his second premiership. Mahathir has said he is open to cooperation with PH component parties, but unresolved issues with opposition leader and PKR president Anwar Ibrahim could be a stumbling block, say analysts.

“Mahathir’s new Pejuang party aims to perform the same maneuver that Bersatu performed in 2018, perhaps this time without necessarily delivering government to PH, but by shoring up his power and position all the same,” said Malhi. “He will be asking voters to trust him alone.”

Complicating the picture for Pejuang is the fact that it lacks strong grassroots support as a new party, unlike the parties it aims to take votes from, Bersatu and UMNO, both of which Mahathir had previously led. Around 62% of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay, and Pejuang adds to the crowded field vying for support of the Malay electorate.  

“Mahathir’s crew does not necessarily have grassroots networks and support beyond UMNO, from which they came. But they might be able to have some impact in Kedah where the Mahathir family legacy is strong and people like Mukhriz,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“It’s not clear how much weight he will be able to pull amongst rural folk who, while respecting him as an elder statesman, are tired of the non-stop political maneuvering,” she added. “Some people just think Mahathir should retire and spend time with his grandchildren.”

Mukhriz Mahathir speaks to the press after winning the 14th general Election here at Wisma Amanah, Bandar Stargate. Photo: AFP Forum

“The new Parti Pejuang (Warrior) is more like Parti Peluang (Opportunity). Mahathir continues to create a clear political path for his son, Mukhriz, in politics,” said Kartini, echoing critics who see the 95-year-old’s new political party as a vehicle for personal ambitions. In any case, Mahathir isn’t ready to bow out of the battle for Malay leadership.  

Pejuang will field a candidate at an upcoming by-election slated to be held on August 29 in the constituency of Slim, a traditional BN-stronghold in Najib’s home state of Perak. The contest is viewed as a litmus test of Mahathir’s popularity that will gauge to what extent his anti-kleptocracy messaging continues to resonate with voters.

Mahathir, for his part, needled Bersatu’s moves to open its membership to non-Malays in a recent blog post, which he said brought the party’s identity into question and demonstrated its low level of support. “There is no route left for [Muhyiddin] to take. Bersatu may be dissolved and join Umno,” he wrote.  

“That is the end of the line for a party that has been stolen.”