Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin are in a battle for the national leadership. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – Skepticism and uncertainty hang over Malaysia in the wake of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s bold declaration on September 23, in which he claimed to command support among a “majority” of lawmakers needed to topple Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.

Hours after announcing that the premier’s nearly seven-month-old government had fallen, Muhyiddin addressed a campaign rally in Sabah, where a bellwether state election is due to be held on Saturday (September 26). Casting Anwar’s bid as an attempt to destabilize the country’s politics, his message to voters was clear: “I’m still your prime minister.”

Insisting he would remain the country’s legitimate leader unless Anwar could substantiate and act on his assertion through “processes and procedures” set under the Federal Constitution, Muhyiddin, 73, called for calm and stressed the opposition leader’s statements remain “a mere claim.”

Anwar, who during a Wednesday press conference emphasized that he has the support of individual lawmakers rather than parties, has yet to reveal the names of those allegedly supporting his bid to take over Putrajaya. Parties within Muhyiddin’s loose Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance have denied that their members are defecting to back Anwar.

But remarks by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), have given certain credence to Anwar’s claim. Zahid notably conceded in a statement that “many” lawmakers from his party and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition he leads do indeed support Anwar’s bid to form a new government.

The remark suggests that Muhyiddin’s government has lost its razor-thin governing majority of just two-seats, signaling that another bout of political drama in the Southeast Asian nation is at hand, one which could potentially trigger the country’s third change of government in less than two and a half years.

Complicating the situation is the fact that Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who Anwar must seek an audience with to formalize his appointment as prime minister, is currently unwell and seeking treatment in a hospital.

Anwar has said he is waiting to meet with the Agong before divulging any further details about his maneuver.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (L) receiving documents from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (R) before taking the oath as the country’s new leader at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP/Maszuandi Adnan/Malaysia’s Department of Information

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah appointed Muhyiddin to the premiership in late February after he clinched a parliamentary majority through defections from the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance and by aligning with UMNO and its ally Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), events that triggered the resignation of then-premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar, 73, now aims to execute a similar power play but in reverse, restoring the PH alliance to government with support by individual defectors from UMNO, which governed Malaysia for over six decades until its defeat in the historic 2018 general election, and perhaps other parties. Malaysia’s king is once again set to play a key role in what happens next.

The Agong has the power to dissolve Parliament, after which an election must be held within 60 days. He could also appoint a prime minister who in his view is likely to command a majority in the legislature. In February, the monarch interviewed lawmakers to determine who they supported, leading to Muhyiddin’s appointment as premier.

Anwar had been scheduled to meet with the king on Tuesday (September 22), but the appointment was canceled for medical reasons. Palace officials confirmed on Friday (September 25) that the Agong would not be granting an audience to anyone for a week as he is under medical observation, deepening the impasse and lack of political clarity.

“It’s a war of words because we don’t see the evidence yet,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute. “We have to see the numbers, and they have to be tested or there has to be a vote, and that’s not going to happen for a period of time.

“This has to be acceded to by the king, and the king is now indisposed.”

Reaction to Anwar’s proclamation has varied, with figures from the pro-Muhyiddin camp pouring scorn on the maneuver and casting it off as a bluff or political ploy to influence the Sabah state election. Mahathir, 95, was publicly skeptical of his on-again, off-again ally’s takeover bid, saying that he believed those backing Anwar’s plot are untrustworthy.

In a statement, the two-time former premier surmised that the UMNO lawmakers backing Anwar were likely from the faction loyal to Zahid and former prime minister Najib Razak, both of whom face multiple corruption charges. He speculated that disgruntlement over Najib’s guilty conviction in July is a factor at play.

Malaysian politicians Anwar Ibrahim (L) and Mahathir Mohamad (R) in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

“If the wishes of their two leaders [Najib and Zahid] are not fulfilled, then the MPs will do what they did to Muhyiddin, which is withdraw their support and collapse the government,” said Mahathir. “The important thing now is whether the prime minister has the majority to maintain his position. Whether or not Anwar has a majority is secondary.”

Mahathir appeared to be telling Anwar that “if you deal with UMNO people, either as individuals or as a bloc, forever giving them what they want in return for their conditional support, you’ll end up in the same trap as Muhyiddin,” said Amrita Malhi, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

Therefore, by implication, she said, paraphrasing Mahathir, “you must deal with me, and make me your kingmaker.”

Muhyiddin’s fragile premiership is dependent on support from UMNO, which has aligned itself with PN but has refused to formally join for various reasons, including what analysts see as a reluctance to play second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s smaller Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, an UMNO splinter party founded in 2016.   

Mahathir has refused political cooperation with UMNO and, while still in the political opposition, is no longer part of PH. The nonagenarian and his faction control five seats and have thus far withheld support for Anwar’s takeover bid, though the opposition leader has said Mahathir “may decide later” to support his bid to form a new coalition government.

It is possible that PN parties who have denied supporting Anwar could switch sides if a new coalition gains momentum and suits their particular interests, say analysts. But given that he won’t be granted an audience with Agong for at least a week, Anwar’s maneuver is seen as being critically vulnerable to sabotage through horse-trading deals in the interim.

While national attention had largely been focused on the looming electoral contest in Malaysia’s eastern-most state, Anwar’s power play came largely out of left field and has overshadowed what is expected to be a tight race between Muhyiddin’s Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) alliance and Warisan Plus, helmed by Shafie Apdal, Sabah’s caretaker chief minister.  

Shafie, 62, has been suggested as the opposition’s alternative prime ministerial candidate, and has been endorsed by Mahathir as well as PH component parties the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah). That’s a sore point for Anwar, who Mahathir had earlier pledged to hand power to throughout his 2018-20 tenure.

Parti Warisan Sabah (PWS) President Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal speaks during a campaign event in Lintas Jaya Kepayan on May 5, 2018. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Shafiq Hashim

The DAP and Amanah maintain that Anwar is their first choice to be the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, and both parties have endorsed his takeover bid. However, they also previously signaled that they would throw their weight behind Shafie as premier if he were able to garner the majority support of lawmakers in Parliament.  

“The timing of Anwar’s recent claim of parliamentary majority to form a new federal government came just a few days before the Sabah elections,” noted Piya Raj Sukhani, a political analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“This raises questions if Anwar’s move was reactionary in asserting that he is indeed a stronger prime ministerial candidate than Shafie,” she said. “If Shafie emerges triumphant, his potential candidature for the premiership may be fortified. If PN and its allies win, it would indicate that Muhyiddin and his government commands public support.”

A total of 447 candidates from 16 political parties will vie for 73 seats in tomorrow’s state polls, which will serve as a key litmus test of Muhyiddin’s ability to keep PN and its allied parties, including UMNO, unified and capable of winning elections. The outcome of the state polls could also impact the timing of Malaysia’s next general election.

Should GRS emerge victorious in the state poll, the results would in turn “provide Muhyiddin with the confidence to call for snap polls sooner than anticipated to debunk the perception that his PN administration is a ‘backdoor government,’” said Sukhani, referring to the derogatory label PH leaders have used to describe the PN administration.

James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, sees it differently. “Holding a general election is always a risky proposition for Muhyiddin because it means that he has to clash with UMNO and PAS over rural seats,” he said, in reference to persistent tensions over seat allocations that have riled the loose PN governing coalition.

Within Sabah, candidates grouped under Muhyiddin’s new GRS alliance are contesting each other in 17 seats under parties and as independents. While Bersatu and UMNO are not clashing in any seats, analysts say the premier has had to appease the more dominant UMNO by ensuring Bersatu contests in fewer seats across the state.

“If Muhyiddin’s allies win the election in Sabah, he will delay the federal election because his hand will be strengthened,” Chin argues. “Victory will strengthen his position vis-à-vis UMNO and PAS. If he doesn’t win, it will be harder for Muhyiddin to deal with UMNO’s push for general elections.”

Aerial view of UMNO’s assembly meeting, December 7, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Warisan Plus, by contrast, has put up a united front by agreeing to a common candidate in all 73 state seats that are up for grabs. The Shafie-led alliance brings the DAP, PKR, Amanah together with Parti Warisan Sabah and the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO), parties allied with the Anwar-led PH which have 10 seats in Parliament.

Campaigning on an inclusive “unity” message in a diverse state with around 42 ethnic groups, Shafie has appealed to Sabah’s 1.12 million voters on the basis of strengthening state rights and leadership vis-à-vis the federal government. Warisan has also pointed to political instability that could follow from GRS clinching a majority in the state.

Overlapping contests among GRS candidates “shows that they are not able to manage seat negotiations, they are not able to come together as one single front,” said lawmaker and DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong. When asked by Asia Times whether Warisan Plus was on track for a significant victory, Liew replied: “So far, so good.”

“No one can tell what will happen at the end of these elections, but if we can win 45 out of 73 seats, it would be considered a convincing victory, a convincing margin that will send a strong message that Muhyiddin is weak, the Sheraton Move was wrong, and the attempts to topple the Sabah government were also wrong,” he said, referring to the political coup that collapsed the PH government in February through crossovers.

Former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman, a Muhyiddin ally, attempted a similar maneuver in July with the aim of toppling Shafie’s government in Sabah, only for the latter to obtain the state governor’s consent to dissolve the assembly and hold new polls.

When asked how Anwar’s takeover bid could impact state polls in Sabah, DAP strategist Liew said the situation “may work to the advantage of Warisan Plus, for the public to see that Muhyiddin is not stable at all…The question of whether he will still be prime minister next week is up in the air.”

Shafie, who has governed Sabah as chief minister since the 2018 general election, has thus far refrained from commenting on Anwar’s attempted countercoup.

A man at a campaign talk by Pakatan Harapan and Parti Warisan Sabah showing a ‘W’ alphabet that symbolizes ‘Warisan’ at Lintas Jaya Kepayan on May 5, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via NNurPhoto/Shafiq Hashim

The 62-year-old politician has said he is confident in Warisan Plus’ victory based on support from voters on the ground. Analysts, meanwhile, see the high-stakes electoral contest as a neck-and-neck race.

“If Shafie wins big in Sabah, there will be a lot of calls for him to take on a more federal role,” said Chin. “If Anwar fails in his latest endeavor to be the prime minister and Shafie is reappointed as the chief minister of Sabah, people in PH may look up to him as a potential future national leader, rather than just for Sabah.

“If he gets a two-thirds majority, Shafie will be almost untouchable.”