Anwar Ibrahim speaks to the press after he was summoned by Malaysian police to give a statement regarding a viral list of federal parliamentarians who allegedly back his bid to claim the premiership, in Kuala Lumpur, October 16, 2020. Photo: Syaiful Redzuan / Anadolu Agency

SINGAPORE – Anwar Ibrahim, long seen as a champion of national reform and multiracial unity, is under pressure from his coalition partners to step aside as frustration with his strategies and leadership mount in the aftermath of a watershed budget vote in Parliament that failed as promised to topple the government.

After pillorying the government’s expansionary 2021 budget and intimating he would not cooperate with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s “back-door government”, opposition leader Anwar allowed the draft expenditure bill to pass in a walkover as per an eleventh-hour strategy shift that has apparently ignited an intra-coalition revolt.

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had intended for the bill’s November 26 vote to serve as a do or die test of Muhyiddin’s nine-month-old administration, which has clung to power with a razor-thin two-seat majority. Instead, the vote has resulted in a legitimacy crisis for the opposition, one that could knock Anwar out as PH’s prime ministerial candidate at the next election.

“The mood in the last week since the vote is one of anger and frustration,” said a senior figure from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). “Everyone is angry, especially with Anwar’s last-minute U-turn. And until now, Anwar has failed to provide a satisfactory explanation to his coalition partners about why he did that.”

In the vote’s aftermath, Anwar confirmed that he unilaterally gave the order to PH lawmakers to stand down even though the leaders of PH’s other component parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), preferred to at least symbolically oppose the budget in a show of defiance.

“Whether it’s in Amanah or DAP, members are disappointed that we failed to at least participate in the voting. Most of them wouldn’t mind if we lose the vote, but refusing to do the voting altogether is akin to surrendering before the fight,” said a branch leader from Amanah who requested anonymity.

Anwar maintains that PH remains opposed to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s budget, though he claimed he allowed it to pass at the so-called policy stage owing to a series of concessions made by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz ahead of the vote, which he said “not totally, but partially” satisfied the opposition coalition’s demands.

Among the incentives announced were a range of cash handouts to medical and non-medical front line workers and others, changes to permit higher withdrawals from federal retirement savings, aid to the pandemic-hit state of Sabah and a reduction of funds allocated to a government propaganda unit.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waving to reporters before his Cabinet announcement in Putrajaya in a March file photo. Image: Agencies/AFP

Others in the opposition camp found that explanation unconvincing. Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), has said Anwar’s change of tact was tantamount to accepting the legitimacy of the PN government, which came to power in March after engineering defections that toppled PH’s administration after less than two years in office.

Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan), whose leader Shafie Apdal is seen as a rising figure in national politics, withdrew from a series of committee stage votes on the budget in a show of dissatisfaction with Anwar, with the party’s whip openly calling for new opposition leadership in order to credibly compete in the country’s next general election.

Following the budget’s passage, Muhyiddin announced his intention to hold a general election after the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control. “I know the people are fed up with the unending politicking…We will return the mandate to the people and leave it to them to choose which government they want,” he said in a November 28 speech.

According to a PKR source who spoke on condition of anonymity, similar anti-Anwar sentiments are increasingly shared by those in his own party, with restlessness rising over a series of strategic missteps this year that have “created a fear that we might not be able to stay as a winning force by the next election.”

Anwar’s star began to wane in the wake of a gambit he initiated to topple Muhyiddin’s government through cross-party defections by cooperating with leaders from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) who have been criminally convicted of corruption or are facing similarly serious charges.

Claiming in a televised press conference on September 23 that he had a “formidable and convincing” parliamentary majority that would allow him to topple Muhyiddin’s government, the 73-year-old’s powerplay gradually came undone amid a series of delays in plans to prove his support to Malaysian’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Seen by some as a bluff to rattle Muhyiddin, Malaysia’s king disputed Anwar’s claims after being granted an audience to present his case for forming a new government in October. The Agong later issued an atypical monarchal call for the budget to be “approved without any interference” to address the nation’s twin economic and health crises.

Friction between UMNO, the largest party in the ruling PN coalition, and Muhyiddin was on full display ahead of the budgetary vote, when some of its backbenchers publicly threatening to defeat the budget unless various populist economic measures were incorporated into the bill, which some eventually were in a last-minute concession.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak (2nd-L) and former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L) at parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Anwar, some observers argue, allowed the budget to pass not solely out of consideration for those concessions, which he said would “help the people”, but out of reluctance to expose his camp’s unrealized majority after UMNO backbenchers led by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak signaled to Anwar that they would not join him to defeat the budget in a bloc vote, where a formal count is taken.

“The immediate decision (to stand down from opposing the budget) was made when he (Anwar) received a note from Zahid from across the hall 10 minutes before the call for bloc voting. No one really had the chance to even discuss it,” said the Amanah source. “He asked all the PH MPs to trust him and not proceed with the bloc voting.”

The same source said that six Amanah lawmakers who stood in defiance of Anwar did so to “uphold the consensus to proceed with bloc vote” reached in earlier PH meetings. Other lawmakers in Amanah attempted to claim that the six didn’t hear Anwar’s instructions, though they plainly opted to stand while their camp remained largely seated.

In committee stage votes that have been held since the draft budget’s passage, PH triggered four bloc votes to oppose ministry-specific allocations but suffered a string of defeats. It refrained from further challenges and allowed seven other allocations to pass with voice votes in which no formal count is conducted. As of December 3, allocations for 11 out of 27 ministries were approved.

The third and final reading of the budget will happen on December 17, which analysts say will formally pass unless UMNO backbenchers break with Muhyiddin and throw their weight behind a pact with Anwar, an audacious and unlikely scenario that would cause the second change of government in less than a year.

The budgetary blunder has thus far raised hard questions about Anwar’s strategy of hoping to overturn the government through defections that have yet to materialize. As some observers have noted, the opposition did not prepare an alternative budget, which had been done in the past when attempts were made to defeat supply bills.

Having an alternative budget and shadow cabinet at the ready, say critics, would have at least partially blunted criticism that defeating the budget – billed as essential to funding the country’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic – would be irresponsible and in defiance of the Agong, whose approval the opposition would need to form a new government.

Should the budget have been defeated, it would have implied a loss of confidence in Muhyiddin’s leadership and, according to Westminster convention, his resignation. Anwar, who was next in line for the premiership before the PH’s government’s unexpected collapse, has been widely criticized for his single-minded focus on winning power.

“Anwar seems to be in favor of a shortcut, like trying to get UMNO to defect, trying to work with certain sections of UMNO in order to achieve his dream of being prime minister,” said the PKR source. “I would say that before the end of the year there will be some realignment of the opposition as it looks like Anwar is not able to fulfill his role anymore.”

After the budget vote, separate PH sources were cited in local media confirming that Anwar had pleaded with his allies to give him “one more week” to prove his parliamentary majority claims, failing which he would resign as PH’s chairman and opposition leader. Anwar’s office, however, denied that the verbal promise had ever been made.

With the draft budget’s passage strengthening Muhyiddin’s hand, separate sources confirmed that disillusionment with Anwar’s leadership has already given rise to discussions about his replacement. Separate sources told Asia Times there wasn’t yet an identifiable frontrunner to replace Anwar, long regarded as the proverbial glue that binds the opposition.

Mahathir Mohamad (2nd R) and then opposition leader Wan Azizah, Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, (2nd L) display placards reading “Love Malaysia and Destroy Kleptocracy” during a rally organized by the Pakatan Harapan on October 14, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

One of the contenders that has purportedly been discussed among the DAP and Amanah is Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, 68, who served in Mahathir’s government as Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister from 2018 to 2020. She is thought to be a more neutral leader and amenable to cooperation with other opposition parties, including Mahathir’s Pejuang, which can help increase the coalition’s vote share.

Wan Azizah has led the opposition through difficult days before, stepping up after her husband’s arrest in 1998, when she carried the fledgling Reformasi movement forward in his stead, joining active politics and seeing the opposition through three general elections, only to step in again after Anwar’s 2015 jailing on politicized sodomy charges.

“We would not want to break away from PKR, so one of the names being talked about is Wan Azizah. If PKR maintains that they want to be the coalition’s leading party, then Anwar could pass the PH chairmanship to his wife, who seems to be more democratic and more acceptable to everyone involved,” said the Amanah source. “But I don’t think the coalition is ready or even brave enough to do without him.”

The rationale for considering her to lead is that the DAP and Amanah ultimately want to remain in coalition with PKR, an influential party with multiracial appeal and considerable grassroots support, but independent of Anwar’s leadership. “The problem is that, after all, Wan Azizah is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, and he will use his strong arm to ensure that the party follows his will,” said the PKR source.

After the budget controversy, it’s unclear on what terms cooperation between PH and opposition parties such as Warisan and Pejuang, which aspires to become a kingmaker in the formation of the next government, can be reached. Opposition unity proved to be a winning electoral formula in 2018, albeit under wholly different political circumstances than what opposition parties would face in post-pandemic polls.

“Anwar seems very adamant to deliberately bypass Mahathir and is not willing to work with people that align with Mahathir, which has become one of the hurdles of opposition unity,” said the same PKR source, who added that Anwar would not likely contemplate stepping aside in favor of his wife, despite her “more inclusive, less erratic” leadership track record.

If pressed by his coalition partners to cede his role as opposition leader, PH sources said Anwar could instead choose to withdraw PKR from the PH coalition to stand in the general election on its own, affording him more room to negotiate with UMNO or form a new coalition with whichever parties are expedient depending on the outcome of the polls.

“It looks like Anwar would rather have the coalition breaking up rather than have it consolidate its strength under different leadership,” said the PKR source. “We might see a total disintegration of the opposition’s united front. It might mean everyone will go for themselves, and that will create further disenfranchisement of the opposition.”