Malaysia‘s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin arrives at a mosque in Putrajaya for prayers in August. Photo: Agencies

SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is under rising pressure to resign after Malaysia’s king rejected his request to declare emergency rule on Sunday (October 25), a pivotal setback for the premier as he faces a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and divisions within his fragile Perikatan Nasional (PN) ruling coalition.

Parties supporting PN, including the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which earlier this month threatened to withdraw support for Muhyiddin, have since thrown the premier a political lifeline by continuing to prop up his government. But with a key vote on the 2021 budget looming, doubts remain as to how long his administration will last with a narrow majority of 113 out of 222 seats in Parliament.

Under Malaysia’s parliamentary system, failure to pass the budget would be equivalent to a loss of confidence in Muhyiddin, who fears the prospect of rebel lawmakers within his government voting against the bills to collapse his administration and trigger a snap election. Debate on the forthcoming budget is set to commence on November 6.

Muhyiddin met with the nation’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, on October 23 to present his case for the proclamation of a state of emergency, purportedly to combat the worsening Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus infections are sharply on the rise across Malaysia, with the total number of cases more than doubling to 28,640 in the past month.

Proponents of an emergency declaration had suggested it as a measure of last resort to prevent a general election being held amid a serious viral resurgence. Figures within UMNO have agitated for early elections in recent months over frustrations with Muhyiddin’s leadership and what they see as a disproportionate division of senior positions in Cabinet.

After deliberation between the heads of the country’s nine royal houses, a collective decision was reached not to impose a state of emergency, with the palace saying there was “no need” to do so in a statement. Muhyiddin’s failure to obtain royal consent was widely seen as a rebuke, as critics cast his gambit as an attempt to consolidate power. 

Emergency rule would have suspended Parliament and allowed the premier to avoid a test of his razor-thin parliamentary majority, while also affording him extra powers to introduce laws and approve expenditure outside of the usual legislative process. Muhyiddin would have been able to govern unopposed for as long as emergency rule remained in place.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (R) talking with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (L) after their meeting at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, October 27, 2020. Photo: Handout/Malaysia National Palace/AFP

Under the constitution, the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, carries out his duties with the advice of the premier and the Cabinet and can declare a state of emergency if he deems there is a threat to national security, the economy or public order. Malaysia hasn’t declared a national emergency since the bloody race riots and civil unrest of 1969.

“In trying his luck at this blatant attempt to reverse democratic progress in the country, Muhyiddin overplayed his hand,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “The king and rulers, who by definition do not have vested political interest, thus decided resolutely against such a drastic power grab.”

Anwar, president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), praised Sultan Abdullah’s decision to forego a state of emergency. The 73-year-old opposition leader had earlier accused Muhyiddin of resorting to undemocratic means to stay in power and of using the Covid-19 pandemic as “an excuse” to prorogue Parliament and avoid a vote of no-confidence.

Muhyiddin’s audience with the king came exactly one month after Anwar claimed to have support from a “solid and convincing majority” of lawmakers in Parliament, enough to unseat the premier and form a new government. That culminated in Anwar’s own meeting with the king on October 13, where he sought royal assent for his takeover bid.   

But the palace issued a statement saying that the 73-year-old opposition leader failed to disclose the identities of the lawmakers supporting his bid, which hardened already considerable public skepticism about his claims of wielding a majority. In a further royal rebuke, the monarch advised Anwar to abide by and respect legal constitutional processes.

The king had been scheduled to meet political party leaders to verify Anwar’s claims, but the palace postponed all meetings due to freshly instated Covid-19 movement curbs. It is unclear if those meetings will be rescheduled. Sultan Abdullah met with Muhyiddin despite a partial lockdown, or conditional movement control order (CMCO), remaining in force.

Although the king, who assumes a largely ceremonial role as the nation’s constitutional monarch, withheld his consent for Muhyiddin’s request for emergency rule, the palace appeared to signal faith in the premier’s continued leadership and offered an endorsement of his administration’s management of the health crisis.

“The government has managed the pandemic well and effectively, and the king believes the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin can continue implementing its policies and enforcement measures to curb the spread of the pandemic,” said the royal comptroller, Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, in an October 25 statement.

A woman undergoes nasal swab during a massive Covid-19 swab test for a community in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia on October 22, 2020. Photo: Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via AFP

The palace statement also highlighted the importance of the upcoming 2021 budget, which will allocate funds to stimulate Malaysia’s recession-hit economy and fund its public health response, and called on politicians to set aside differences and stop “all forms of ‘politicking’ that can upset the stability of the country’s existing government.”

In signaling support for Muhyiddin’s government without acceding to its request for emergency rule, Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute, described the palace’s stance as “an attempt to find balance in an unbalanced situation.”

“It’s about reaching an accommodation. There are people who do not want emergency rule to happen. On the other hand, there are people who do not want Anwar to come to power. The palace’s statement on the need not to destabilize was an implicit rebuke of the attempt to take over the government that was led by Anwar on September 23,” she said.

Anwar’s attempted powerplay triggered weeks of political turmoil and intrigue over alliance shifting and backroom negotiations, which played out as coronavirus cases multiplied. Analysts say the PKR president sought to capitalize on UMNO’s frustrations with Muhyiddin in a bid to form a new alliance with defectors from the once-hegemonic former ruling party.

“We have really had constantly shifting coalitions being put together or dissolved on an almost daily, if not weekly, basis because the different political parties, factions within political parties or even cross-party factions, are trying to derive maximum benefits for their respective parties or factions,” Oh told Asia Times.

Speculation that Anwar had been courting support from an UMNO faction associated with criminally convicted former prime minister Najib Razak was confirmed earlier this week after the ex-premier admitted to mulling a temporary alliance with Anwar, who was jailed on sodomy charges during his tenure, under certain conditions until elections are held.

“UMNO must open itself to negotiations with other political parties – including Anwar’s – if UMNO is still dissatisfied with how it is being treated in the government,” said Najib in a Facebook post that ruled out cooperation with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese-majority opposition party aligned with Anwar that is an anathema to UMNO.

Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party president Anwar Ibrahim in a file photo. Photo by Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto

The disgraced former premier refuted claims that he is pushing UMNO towards a partnership with Anwar and said the suggestion of an alliance was one of two options he put forth to UMNO leaders, the other being a proposal for UMNO to push for a fixed date for the next general election once the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control.

Allowing UMNO to play a role in managing Malaysia’s finances was another condition Najib attached to the suggestion. Analysts speculate that such an alliance could be premised on a quid pro quo that would see compromised UMNO figures receive more lenient treatment with their pending corruption cases in exchange for their support in Parliament.

Najib, who is currently on trial for abuse of power and money laundering, has denied suggestions that he aims to evade criminal charges pending against him. Anwar, in a statement released following Najib’s remarks, said PKR would be “willing to work with any politician who aspires to a system free of corruption and power abuse and raises political values.”

UMNO convened a meeting of its supreme council on October 26 to deliberate whether to continue supporting Muhyiddin’s PN coalition after his emergency rule proposal unraveled, which concluded with the party reaffirming its support for the premier but on terms of more equitable cooperation based on “respect” and “political consensus.”

In recent weeks, UMNO leaders have gone from issuing ultimatums and labeling Muhyiddin’s smaller party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), a “political rival” to extending a political ceasefire in view of a resurgent Covid-19 outbreak and pledging support for the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic and revive the economy.

Many expect that Muhyiddin will soon announce a Cabinet reshuffle that would see more UMNO ministers appointed to more prominent positions. UMNO wants one of its leaders to be the deputy prime minister since it has the most seats within the ruling coalition, and to be given control of key ministries related to economics, commerce and agriculture.

Satiating UMNO’s dissatisfaction with the prevailing distribution of power and positions between parties could give Muhyiddin more room to maneuver, but so far analysts see the political ceasefire in place as temporary. The question is whether each and every UMNO lawmaker toes the party line when they vote on the government’s budget proposal.

Political parties are likely to heed royal advice to ensure Muhyiddin’s 2021 budget is passed without incident, say analysts. The premier’s ability to muster his two-seat majority, based on the number of lawmakers who sat on the government’s side during the Parliament sitting in May, would be a profound setback for Anwar and his own rival majority claims.

Muhyiddin’s focus, some analysts argue, should be on reaching a short-term agreement with the Anwar-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition, which would ensure the expenditure bill’s passage in exchange for conceding to certain reforms, or even potentially allowing a motion of no confidence to be tabled separately in Parliament.

“The issue ahead is what sort of strategy Muhyiddin wants to adopt. A potentially healthy solution would be engaging the opposition to reach some sort of accommodation with what they want to put inside the budget, such as, for example, constituency representation in terms of allocations or representation on committees,” said academic Welsh.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask during the opening ceremony of the third term of the 14th parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 2020. Photo: Nazri Rapaai / Malaysia’s Department of Information / AFP

Even if Muhyiddin’s wobbly government survives the budget vote, it will still need to cope with all the predicaments of the political status quo, including the ever-present vulnerability to collapse at the whim of potential defectors. Such a tenuous hold on power guarantees that horse-trading will continue to burden the premier’s ability to govern.

But rather than pursuing an emergency gambit, observers say Malaysia would be better served by Muhyiddin reaching across the aisle to other political parties to establish a framework for bipartisanship at a time when the nation faces concurrent political, health and economic crises with no precedent in its post-independence history.

“The fact of the matter is that Muhyiddin doesn’t have a majority, so maneuvering and politicking is happening across the different spectrums. The emergency gambit that Muhyiddin adopted was also part of the politicking and positioning itself, and in some ways has actually weakened him as opposed to strengthening him,” said Welsh.

“All of the leaders have been weakened by this process, across the political divide. Malaysians are fed up with all of this and would rather the focus be on looking for a solution. What we’re seeing is a test of Malaysian leadership as to whether or not they can reach a solution in a fragmented coalition system.”