SINGAPORE – With a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and threats from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to withdraw from his ruling alliance, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s hold on power has never been so precarious.

Though a narrow win for Muhyiddin’s informal Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) alliance at bellwether state elections in Sabah on September 26 somewhat boosted his political clout, a subsequent internal tiff over the grouping’s chief ministerial candidate now threatens to collapse his Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition.

UMNO and Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) were in a deadlock over who should be appointed as Sabah’s next leader, with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi insisting that candidate come from his party. The position was unexpectedly conceded to Muhyiddin’s preferred choice, Hajiji Mohd Noor, earlier this week.

While the 73-year-old premier described the outcome as reflecting consensus within GRS, Zahid claimed that UMNO’s candidate had been pressured from within into accepting a compromise that was “too costly” a concession.

Leading figures within UMNO and others are now pressuring Zahid to act divisively by withdrawing support for PN. UMNO, which controls 39 seats, constitutes the largest single bloc aligned with the PN government, which it currently supports only in matters of confidence and supply. PN has just 113 lawmakers in total, with Bersatu filling 31 seats.

Such a move would deprive Muhyiddin of his razor-thin two-seat governing majority and push Malaysia toward either a possible change of government or an early general election held amid a worsening Covid-19 pandemic and the most severe economic crisis the nation has faced since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.  

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar, 73, could be well-placed to capitalize on a rupture between UMNO and Bersatu. Days before the Sabah election, he sensationally claimed that Muhyiddin’s government had fallen and that he had secured a “formidable” majority in the country’s 222-seat Parliament to form a new federal government.

Anwar has yet to reveal the names of lawmakers who supposedly support his power grab and to date no politicians have crossed the aisle, leading some to dismiss his September 23 declaration as an electoral ploy to gain an edge in the Sabah polls. PKR’s partners in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance are also apparently in the dark on Anwar’s defection claim.

Anwar Ibrahim (C) meets supporters after submitting his documents at the nomination center for the by-election in Port Dickson, Malaysia on September 29, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP/Adli Ghazali

“It is up to him to prove it. I don’t know,” the Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) national organization secretary Anthony Loke was quoted as saying following a PH presidential council meeting earlier this week, where Anwar’s bid to take over the federal government was purportedly discussed. No details of the meeting were disclosed to the media.

“Anwar has said he’ll show his evidence to the king when he is ready to see him. He has made such claims before and they haven’t turned out to be true, but every scenario has different possibilities present within it,” said Amrita Malhi, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

“Signaling ambivalence is one common way of managing expectations.”

Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, was due to meet Anwar on September 22 but underwent hospitalization for food poisoning a day earlier and later received “medical intervention” in connection with a sporting injury, the palace has said. The Agong remains indisposed but is expected to be discharged soon.

Anwar would require Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah’s royal assent to formalize his role as prime minister and lead a new government, provided a majority of elected parliamentarians declare support for him.

In February, the monarch interviewed lawmakers to determine who they supported, leading to Muhyiddin’s appointment as premier after backroom maneuvers brought down Mahathir Mohamad’s elected government.

“A meeting could still happen after the king is discharged and he resumes his duties. But in technical terms, I think the king realized what Anwar was planning could only reach fruition if he played a role, and he was not prepared to play a role,” said Chandra Muzaffar, political scientist and former lecturer at the University of Science Malaysia (USM) in Penang.

“I don’t know how Anwar will broach this subject, because it’s obvious that quite a bit of water has flowed under the bridge since he made this move and the king has made it clear he would like his legislators to concentrate on what’s important to the people. He doesn’t want them to be involved in political maneuvering and all the rest,” he added.

Anwar’s claim that Muhyiddin’s government had lost support was given certain credence by remarks made by UMNO’s Zahid in the hours following the PKR leader’s proclamation, which has since been dubbed the “Meridien Move” in reference to the hotel where Anwar held a hastily convened press conference to announce his takeover bid.

Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (C) is escorted by police to a court in Kuala Lumpur to face charges on October 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Malaysia OUT

Zahid confirmed in a statement that “many” lawmakers from his party and the BN coalition he leads do indeed support Anwar’s bid to form a new government, though without identifying who.

Several UMNO lawmakers have since publicly denied support for Anwar, though analysts haven’t written off the possibility of some still opting to defect. Moreover, speculation is rife among observers that Zahid himself is part of the group willing to work with Anwar, likely with hope of attaining more lenient treatment in relation to pending criminal charges that he and others now face.

Zahid served as deputy premier under Najib Razak, who in July became the first former Malaysian prime minister to be accused and convicted of criminal charges in court. Zahid himself faces 87 charges in connection with alleged bribery and money laundering, and could potentially spend the rest of his life behind bars if found guilty.

“The danger of some UMNO lawmakers switching sides – perhaps, six or seven of them in the present Parliament – is ever-present. Why? Because of the court cases that they’re facing. These individuals would certainly want to act against Muhyiddin. Zahid is the most prominent among them. I think this is the real issue,” said Muzaffar.

“After seeing what had happened to Najib, he was convicted on all seven charges, I think what really disappointed Zahid was that the executive, meaning by which Muhyiddin, made no attempt to intervene to ensure that Najib would not be convicted,” said Muzaffar. “For Zahid, this was a hell of a setback because in his mind he could be next.”

It is speculated that those who purportedly support Anwar’s bid come from an UMNO faction loyal to Zahid and Najib. Former UMNO supreme council member Lokman Noor Adam, a Najib loyalist who was sacked from the party in February, appeared to admit as much in a September 29 video posted on his Facebook page.  

Lokman warned of discontent brewing within UMNO ranks over Bersatu’s alleged “bullying”, which he said had manifested in a strategy of support for Anwar as the prime minister. He called on Zahid to exit the PN administration and withdraw support for Muhyiddin within seven days or face a challenge to his leadership over UMNO.

UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan, one of Zahid’s potential rivals, issued a pointed statement on October 1 calling on him to “offer guidance and a clear direction…on whether we should continue our cooperation with our political rivals,” in light of “anger among members over how UMNO was treated in the Sabah state election.”

UMNO had argued that its candidate should lead the state on the basis of winning 14 seats in Sabah, compared to 11 seats clinched by Bersatu. PN’s cumulative showing, however, saw it gain 17 seats. The statement is believed to be the first time an UMNO leader has openly labeled Bersatu a “political rival.”

Malaysians line up to vote in recently concluded state elections in Sabah. Image: Facebook

Mohamad said such a decision was urgent in order for UMNO to prepare to contest a general election untethered from Bersatu, which would see both parties fiercely compete for support from the same ethnic Malay Muslim support base.

Zahid took to Facebook hours later to confirm that a “full post-mortem” of the Sabah state election is underway and that the party’s direction will be decided by UMNO’s supreme council and not him alone, saying it would not be suitable for him to decide on behalf of UMNO without a consensus of its senior leadership.

Recent ultimatums and maneuvering suggest a new round of political contestation is firmly at hand, eight months after Muhyiddin rose to power in the aftermath of a political coup that collapsed the PH government – and with it a promise that Anwar would succeed then-premier Mahathir, thereby realizing his decades-long aspiration to lead the nation.   

In the ebb and flow of political allegiances that could follow, it isn’t clear whether Anwar may yet cooperate with UMNO or its lawmakers in the hopes of being returned to power. Muzaffar, a former PKR deputy president who became an outspoken critic of Anwar after quitting the multiethnic party in 2001, doesn’t rule out the possibility.

“If you look at Anwar throughout his career, he’s been ever-willing to play this game of getting people to cross over and using whatever means to persuade people to cross over. That has been part of his politics all along. This has never been an issue for him,” said Muzaffar, who cited a similar attempt by Anwar to declare a majority in September 2008.

At the time, Anwar claimed that the-then Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition had secured the support of 31 BN lawmakers, enough to form a new government with a simple majority of 112 seats. But none of the 140 parliamentarians supporting then-prime minister Abdullah Badawi’s government ever crossed over, an outcome that demoralized PKR supporters.  

“He made all sorts of promises. We don’t know whether money exchanged hands or not, but he was actively pursuing his ambitions. And it didn’t work out, it failed,” said Muzaffar. “If you look at what he has done since in terms of alliances he was prepared to forge and the people he was prepared to work with, it’s no surprise that he would do a thing like this.”

In an interview with Asia Times, Muzaffar recounted how he joined PKR because of Anwar’s dismissal by Mahathir as deputy premier and the harsh treatment he endured following his arrest in September 1998. After joining hands in opposition to Mahathir’s authoritarian rule, Muzaffar said he became distraught by Anwar’s apparent pursuit of power over principles.

“In 1998, when there was this crisis in leadership, Anwar was hauled over the coals. There was this concerted attempt to destroy him politically. I thought that he was being treated unfairly, and as a result of the way he was being treated, things were happening to the institutions of governance and processes that were so vital to democracy,” he said.

Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and his then-deputy Anwar Ibrahim (L) pray during UMNOs 50th anniversary celebration in a 1996 file photo. Photo: AFP/Francis Silvan

“What happened later was, as I went along… I saw money politics in the party, and the role of some individuals around him, how Anwar in a sense allowed these things to happen. In fact, he saw these things as useful in terms of his own ascendancy. He just played politics all the way. And as a result of that, I decided to quit at the end of 2001,” Muzaffar added.

Muzaffar would not be the last PKR deputy president to turn away from the party citing irreconcilable differences. Mohamed Azmin Ali and ten other PKR lawmakers abandoned the party earlier this year, leading to the collapse of the PH government, a strategy that Anwar is now attempting to use in reverse to upend Muhyiddin’s premiership.  

In comparison to his 2008 bid, where Anwar faced a ruling coalition with a 29-seat majority, PKR is today far better positioned to secure enough defectors for a takeover in the face of Muhyiddin’s two-seat majority. Moreover, the opposition coalition today has 91 lawmakers in comparison to 2008, when it had 81.  

But the pursuit of such a strategy risks alienating PKR’s support base at a time when PH’s broader popularity has fallen dramatically amid pandemic-era political fatigue and a certain disillusionment with the prevailing personalities of Anwar and Mahathir, given how their once promising formula for renewed cooperation has unravelled so spectacularly, leaving widely hoped for reforms unrealized.

“Anwar’s apparent willingness to negotiate with UMNO over the Meridien Move might seriously undermine PKR and PH’s legitimacy among progressive voters who have grown increasingly disenchanted with PH,” said Harrison Cheng, an associate director with consulting firm Control Risks.

A survey conducted by independent pollster Merdeka Center in August found that only 25% of Malaysians had a positive view of the PH opposition coalition, while 52% viewed it negatively. By contrast, 51% of those surveyed had a positive view of the PN ruling coalition, with around 27% holding a negative view of the informal grouping.

Muhyiddin, moreover, proved popular among those surveyed, with 69% saying they approved of his performance. That is despite a drawn-out attempt by Mahathir, Bersatu’s former chairman, to challenge Muhyiddin’s rule in recent months, culminating in the nonagenarian’s move to form a new political party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang).

New Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

“Mahathir’s efforts to unseat Muhyiddin via a Bersatu rebellion have failed spectacularly. Pejuang did badly in the Slim by-election and it seems to have run out of ideas,” Cheng added, in reference to the fledging party’s maiden electoral battle in August, which saw it trounced by an UMNO candidate fielded by the BN coalition in Perak state.  

“PH’s popularity has declined significantly during this time,” Cheng added.

Mahathir, 95, has in recent days trained his guns at Anwar, claiming his former deputy had failed to support his premiership despite having arranged for his royal pardon and release from prison in May 2018. He also accused then-finance minister Anwar of helping UMNO politicians – including Zahid – to amass wealth ahead of a failed bid to challenge his leadership in 1998.

The two-term former premier has publicly cast doubt on Anwar’s claims of having a majority and said none of Pejuang’s five lawmakers have declared support for his bid.

“Muhyiddin being toppled is one thing, the question of whether Anwar has the support [of lawmakers] is another,” he was quoted as saying in a recent interview.

Analysts say the next key test for Muhyiddin will be a vote to pass the 2021 budget when it is debated by Parliament in early November. The 73-year-old premier will need support from UMNO lawmakers to pass any government bill. Failing to do so would demonstrate that the premier ceases to command a majority, opening the door to the dissolution of Parliament and snap polls.  

In the present circumstances, UMNO’s backing is far from assured.