Ever since Mahathir Mohamad resigned as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, politics in that country has become very messy and confusing.
Malay politicians, especially those in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), are playing the race card to garner support for a new coalition to shake or topple Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, in order to advance their own political agenda.
It is obvious that UMNO, once the kingmaker of Malaysian politics, is struggling under Muhyiddin, after the party’s dramatic fall from grace in the 2018 general election. But what exactly is UMNO really up to?
Calm before the storm
Muhyiddin came to power by toppling the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition after Mahathir’s resignation. Under his new Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, UMNO was able to return as part of the ruling government, but with limited executive power.
He is mindful of the risks involved in forging an alliance with UMNO, having previously been ousted as deputy prime minister in 2015 for being too critical against Najib Razak, the prime minister at the time, for his handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, which has since escalated into an international embarrassment for Malaysia.
Anwar Ibrahim, the president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which has the majority of seats in PH, saw his dream of becoming the next prime minister of Malaysia go up in smoke when PH lost its majority in Parliament this year.
As such, both Anwar and UMNO have been actively trying to challenge Muhyiddin’s premiership, as they both have personal motives for doing so.
After the recent election in Sabah, UMNO became much more vocal against Muhyiddin as its parliamentarians continue to be sidelined by the prime minister, knowing well that UMNO has no real option beyond PN.
With some of them being charged in courts, or busy making appeals or waiting for their days in court, these politicians are becoming restless and frustrated with Muhyiddin.
But the biggest threat to UMNO has to be the mandate that voters gave PH in the 2018 general election, which was to effect political reform and eradicate widespread corruption in Malaysia. To nullify this threat, UMNO would have to destroy the credibility of PH.
As such, both Muhyiddin and Anwar can be seen as obstacles to UMNO’s return to power.
When news broke that Anwar had secured majority support from parliamentarians to topple Muhyiddin from power, Malaysians were generally shocked, as there was no way for Anwar to secure such a support without backing from UMNO.
If Anwar has indeed forged an alliance with UMNO, then Malaysians have a right to ask him whether their mandate is being prioritized under such an arrangement. Until the next general election, that mandate remains technically in force.
When Anwar met the king on October 13 to inform him that he had secured majority support to topple Muhyiddin, it baffled everyone as to why UMNO would help Anwar become the next prime minister and allow him to effect political reform that would be detrimental to UMNO.
Things became clearer when UMNO subsequently denied that it had supported Anwar.
If he believed in UMNO, then Anwar has clearly fallen into its trap, which is to discredit PH, and to use the discourse to try to shake Muhyiddin into some form of submission.
Now that UMNO has openly denied that it backed him, Anwar will have to account somehow how he got the majority support he claims, which appears to be both mathematically and logically improbable.
While Anwar has consistently rebutted allegations that he was too obsessed with wanting to become the next prime minister, he will now have to find ways to demonstrate that he has placed the mandate of the people before his own personal agenda.
There is a strong probability that some lawmakers within PH will lose faith in him and leave his coalition, just like Azmin Ali and 10 other former PKR loyalists who in February left that party to join Bersatu.
Opportunity for change
While UMNO may think it can now focus on pressuring Muhyiddin into granting it greater concessions and executive power, it needs to remember that Muhyiddin is no Anwar and has proved to be much more resilient in dealing with UMNO.
With Shafie Apdal, the former chief minister of Sabah, and Tunku Razaleigh, chairman of the Advisory Board of UMNO, both being very strong contenders to topple Muhyiddin from his premiership, he knows well that he can play the most feared card against UMNO and his political adversaries by calling for an election before Parliament next sits in early November, which remains his constitutional right.
If he does, he knows well that in the eyes of many Malaysians, he has kept his end of the bargain with his voters. Even if he does not win the next election, he will still go down with honor as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia, without having to suffer the disgrace of being ousted from office by a no-confidence vote.
He could also return to Mahathir, his former mentor, and seek a truce. This option is probable, since “the enemy of my enemy is still a friend” may hold true given the extremely challenging political climate they both are facing.
Under such a reunified coalition, they would have the potential to attract serious politicians who remain dedicated to the people’s mandate for reform, and could also serve as an alternative political front for politicians from PH who may have lost faith in Anwar’s leadership.
Should this eventuality come to past, then Muhyiddin, Mahathir and other serious political reformers may just have the last laugh at UMNO for helping them expose questionable and power-hungry politicians who have been disruptive to real reform efforts.
This will definitely galvanize Malaysians in their fight for greater political reform, and could well become UMNO’s greatest nightmare should it be ousted from power for the second time.