Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin receives a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a government clinic in Putrajaya. Photo: Malaysia Department of Information / Maszuandi Adnan

SINGAPORE – When embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered a speech marking his first year in office earlier this month, the leader reiterated his vow to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election after the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control, reassuring voters that they will ultimately decide the fate of his unelected ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

With vaccinations now being rolled out and coronavirus restrictions easing as the still high national caseload trends lower, bipartisan pressure to reopen Parliament is coming to a head. The bicameral legislature was controversially suspended with the proclamation of emergency rule on January 12 amid an alarming rise in daily infections, a move that effectively suspended democracy.  

But there is no indication yet when Parliament will reconvene as the premier ramps up efforts to court opposition defectors to shore up his coalition’s razor-thin legislative majority. It’s also unclear if the political stability Muhyiddin has sought to provide through the emergency will hold after the declaration expires in four months.

Malaysia’s politics have been in tumultuous flux since the collapse of the elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration last February, a political convulsion that brought Muhyiddin to power. The 73-year-old premier has since faced daunting health, political and economic crises, all while his government has struggled to maintain its slim ruling majority.

Muhyiddin’s tenure has been plagued by political threats from within and without. Plans by his largest coalition partner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to abandon support for his administration and contest against his governing Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party are now an open secret.

The embattled premier has faced repeated leadership challenges from opposition leader and PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim, who appears as determined as ever to finally clinch the premiership despite a string of political defeats that saw his repeated attempts to topple Muhyiddin’s government unravel spectacularly.

Faced with a Covid-19 third wave, Muhyiddin declared a nationwide state of emergency that is valid until August 1. Ostensibly, this was to halt a severe spike in cases, though many observers saw the declaration as a well-calculated move by Muhyiddin to squash a potentially destabilizing political rebellion.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask, face shield and rubber gloves arrives at a quarantine facility for people with the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang, outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Malaysia Department of Information via AFP/Aqilah Mazlan

“I view the emergency proclamation as a means to an end and believe it is genuinely justified, but the political scenario has blurred the overall motive to have the state of emergency,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal bin Nik Mahmod, a professor and legal advisor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

“Thus, it is inevitable that the prime minister is accused of using the emergency and refusing to call Parliament in an elaborate effort to protect his weak position,” he added. “Even without an emergency proclamation, Muhyiddin has to maneuver politically. It is about survival, and he has to overcome all challenges to proceed further.”

Under the emergency, Muhyiddin has had broad and enhanced powers to enact new laws as emergency ordinances without legislative scrutiny. Parliamentary proceedings have been suspended for the duration of the emergency, unless the premier advises the king to convene a sitting, which Muhyiddin has yet to do.

Following the emergency’s declaration, Anwar filed a lawsuit against the government challenging Muhyiddin’s advice to the king to suspend parliamentary sittings. Several senior UMNO figures also chided the premier for proroguing the legislature, with the party’s graft-accused president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi describing Malaysian democracy as “dead.”

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Azalina Othman Said, an UMNO supreme council member, wrote an open letter to Attorney General Idrus Harun in February criticizing his advice for the government to suspend Parliament and all activities of its Special Select Committees, including a ban on virtually held meetings. 

The controversy led to Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah issuing a statement on February 24 clarifying that Parliament can be convened, prorogued, or dissolved during a state of emergency on a date deemed suitable by the king after taking into consideration the premier’s advice.

The palace’s statement led many to assess that the legislature would soon be convened, which could open the door for the premier’s opponents to launch a fresh confidence vote that challenges his slim majority and potentially leads to snap polls.

“It perplexes many as to why Parliament is not convened until now,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal. “I do not think that fear of a vote of no confidence is main the reason. I could only speculate that the prime minister does not want to rock the boat in light of the country’s overall situation.”

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah signed off on Muhyiddin Yassin’s Covid-19 emergency. Photo: AFP/Nazri Rapaai

When the emergency was declared, Muhyiddin had the support of only 109 out of 222 lawmakers after two UMNO lawmakers withdrew their support for his government, a week after UMNO overwhelmingly decided to cut ties with Bersatu. By convention, those defections meant that Muhyiddin no longer commanded a ruling majority.

But three lawmaker defections from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) have since shored up Muhyiddin’s majority, though the extent of his support remains unclear without a sitting of the legislature. All three party-hoppers pledged their support for the premier, citing frustration with the leadership and direction of the country’s third-largest political party.

“Whatever the intention behind the declaration of the emergency, it has definitely disrupted the opposition front. The emergency period saw the opposition losing some of its members of Parliament, giving the government a clear majority,” said Adib Zalkapli, Malaysia director with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia. “From this perspective, the emergency has brought stability to the government.”

Muhyiddin’s majority is by any measure fragile. That’s because even a small number of UMNO lawmakers, such as those aligned with party president Zahid, could upend the government by withdrawing their support. UMNO legislators who have publicly criticized Muhyiddin, however, have yet to formally renounce their support for him.

Many in UMNO, which governed the country continuously for 61 years before being electorally defeated for the first time in 2018, resent the notion of playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s smaller Bersatu, an UMNO splinter party, and are determined to retake Putrajaya at the helm of a new federal government.

That UMNO camp fears voters may associate them with what many view as an unstable administration and will cost the party at the ballot box if they remain with PN. Analysts, in any case, see Muhyiddin doubling down on a strategy of courting defectors from across the political spectrum to bolster Bersatu in anticipation of a rupture with UMNO.

“UMNO is substantially divided. The party is going in at least three separate directions,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal. “Some factions in UMNO do not want to continue to work with Muhyiddin and Bersatu. Another section intends to continue to cooperate with him and PN. Those from UMNO who support him are in his Cabinet.

“Those opposing him are outside the Cabinet. UMNO state liaisons are also divided. Simultaneously, Anwar has been the subject of ridicule for continuously asserting that he has the ‘numbers’ to bring down the government. This provides an impetus for Muhyiddin to garner support from MPs susceptible to or open to change,” he added.

“So far, only a few MPs have obliged.”

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and acting president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), speaks to reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

A day before Muhyiddin declared the emergency decree, a movement control order (MCO) took effect that banned nationwide interstate travel in a bid to halt the pandemic’s spread. Though daily cases are still often in the thousands, authorities have begun to see some success in bringing infections down from late January’s record daily tally of 5,738 cases.

In early March, less restrictive MCOs took effect across the country, allowing for parks and tourist attractions as well as businesses like cinemas, spas and massage parlors to reopen. Muhyiddin recently said that his government soon plans to move away from imposing state-wide MCOs in favor of controls on specific virus-hit localities.

In separate but seemingly coordinated remarks, Anwar and Zahid earlier this month reasserted bipartisan demands for the restoration of Parliament in light of those easing restrictions. Both politicians cited the argument that the Federal Constitution empowers the king to summon Parliament by decree and not necessarily on the premier’s advice.

“The king’s message should have signaled to Muhyiddin that the reconvening of Parliament should take place sooner rather than later. If Covid-19 infection rates continue to fall, I foresee Muhyiddin having to convene Parliament while the emergency is in place,” said Harrison Cheng, associate director of consultancy Control Risks.

“[Muhyiddin] probably prefers not to reconvene Parliament because his majority is still quite slim despite the latest defections, and he won’t want to risk a vote where UMNO factions decide to withdraw support and create a no-confidence situation,” he added.

“But I expect him to try and strictly limit the motions and the time allowed for parliamentary proceedings, just as he had done in 2020 to close off as many avenues of dissent as he can while maintaining the façade of parliamentary deliberations and normalcy.”

Over two dozen motions of no-confidence were lodged by opposition members against the premier during parliamentary sessions last year, which were all procedurally blocked to avoid a test of his legislative majority.

Speaker of Parliament Azhar Azizan Harun, who would have to accept the tabling of any confidence motion, is thus seen by some observers as being in Muhyiddin’s corner. But analysts anticipate that the premier will have no way around demonstrating the extent of his support after Parliament reopens. 

“If Parliament sits, the proclamation of emergency and ordinances passed from there must be laid before the legislature. Thus, support for the declaration and its laws will be shown or otherwise in Parliament. Therefore, it will also be a concern for the government if they are defeated on this matter,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal.

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk past a mural near a shopping mall district in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 18, 2021. Photo: EyePress Newswire via AFP / FL Wong

Among those ordinances is a controversial law punishing the publication of “fake news” related to Covid-19 and the state of emergency with hefty fines and jail terms of up to six years. PH has condemned the law, which took effect on March 12, while critics have warned that it could be used to silence dissent and curtail free speech.

Muhyiddin’s government has also unveiled two tranches of economic stimulus totaling 35 billion ringgit (US$8.4 billion) since the emergency began, which lawmakers have not been able to scrutinize. Putting money in the pockets of people and businesses during the emergency will no doubt boost the premier’s election bid.

BowerGroupAsia’s Adib said that while the tabling of any test of Muhyiddin’s support is unlikely, lawmakers will pull no punches when the legislature finally convenes: “Parliament is a political theater for its members. They have to put on a good show, to outdo the performance of their opponents to keep their supporters happy or win new potential voters.”

While Muhyiddin’s emergency is seen by some as a shrewd political gamble, he is now clearly well-placed to reap the benefits of a successful Covid-19 national immunization program, which aims to vaccinate at least 80% of Malaysia’s 32 million population within a year.

The first of a three-phase vaccine rollout began on February 24 with Muhyiddin receiving a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Before Malaysia’s third wave, which saw cases inch up since September, the premier’s popularity was riding high due to his government’s successful containment of earlier Covid-19 outbreaks.  

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is presiding over a Covid-19 emergency that has suspended parliament. Photo: AFP / Bandar Al-Jaloud

If the government can again bring cases under control and ease restrictions on movement and economic activity, it could put popular winds in Muhyiddin’s sails heading into an election that, according to Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, could be called as early as September.

“If Muhyiddin can oversee a good rollout of vaccines between March and August, when the emergency is set to expire, he would be in a stronger position to keep UMNO on his side,” said Cheng. “The longer he is able to stay in power and delay a snap [poll] into late 2021 or even 2022, the greater the chances of consolidating his position.”

Parliamentarians and state assemblymen were reportedly slated to receive vaccine jabs under the first phase of the inoculation plan, so a further delay of parliamentary sittings cannot be easily justified on public health grounds. If massage parlors and cinemas can reopen, say voices on both sides of the political divide, then so should Parliament.