Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin taking pictures in Parliament before it was suspended due to a state of emergency, November 6, 2020. Photo: AFP via Malaysian Department of Information / Khirul Nizam

SINGAPORE – Malaysians woke up to political turmoil and uncertainty July 8 with the president of the largest party in the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), announcing it has withdrawn its support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and calling for his resignation.

But it remains to be seen whether the regime change gambit will succeed or backfire, with the embattled premier’s survival now depending in part on whether UMNO ministers serving in his government follow or ignore their party’s directive, opening the way for a potential political realignment if dissenting legislators are sacked.

UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi issued the bombshell declaration at a late-night online press conference held after a meeting of the party’s supreme council, where he criticized the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and economy. Zahid said Muhyiddin had used a health-related national state of emergency to remain in power.

“UMNO urges Muhyiddin Yassin to withdraw honorably to enable a new prime minister to be appointed for a limited period,” said Zahid, adding that an interim premier should serve until the country achieves herd immunity, an 80% threshold that the government aims to reach through mass vaccination by December, and a general election is called.

Ahead of the announcement, speculation had been rampant that Zahid would initiate moves to withdraw from the government. But on Wednesday (July 7) afternoon, just hours before the supreme council meeting, Muhyiddin’s administration promoted two UMNO ministers in a cabinet reshuffle aimed at placating the party’s leadership.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an UMNO vice president and incumbent defense minister, was appointed deputy prime minister, a post that Muhyiddin left vacant after coming to power last March. Another UMNO cabinet member, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, was made a senior minister and assigned to oversee parts of Ismail’s security portfolio.

Both ministers are seen as part of a faction within UMNO that wishes to remain with the PN government. Zahid has faced strong resistance to his scorched earth withdrawal plans from UMNO ministers who are not part of the supreme council, with some elected lawmakers publicly calling for disciplinary action against the party president.

Local media have reported on a brewing rebellion against Zahid, who faces corruption and money laundering charges, among the ranks of UMNO legislators who have held discreet private meetings in recent days. Twenty-five out of the party’s 38 elected lawmakers are believed to have withdrawn their support for Zahid.

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, May 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Though Zahid’s announcement has apparently rendered Muhyiddin’s coalition a minority government, it remains to be seen whether Ismail and other UMNO lawmakers believed to be opposed to the gambit will retract their support for the prime minister as commanded, particularly at a moment of profound national crisis. 

A strict lockdown has been in effect since May, though new Covid-19 infections have trended upward with daily cases exceeding 6,000 to 8,000 since late June. Muhyiddin has been hospitalized over a digestive system infection since June 30, though is in stable enough condition to chair virtual meetings and is soon expected to be discharged.

Sources privy to the UMNO supreme council meeting who were anonymously quoted in a Malay Mail report attested to bitter divisions within the party, with newly appointed deputy premier Ismail leading the charge against Zahid, who claims strong backing from supporters in the supreme council as well as at the party’s grassroots and among division leaders.

“Ismail firmly and sternly told Zahid that many are wary of his political stand to withdraw UMNO’s support from PN and want him to stop,” said a source quoted in the Malay Mail report. Others reportedly urged the party president to “see reason” in maintaining political stability while the economy and health system are under worsening pandemic pressure.

The long-speculated promotion of a deputy premier from UMNO also evidently failed to sway the supreme council, whose members are adamant that the party must hold the premiership. “The Zahid camp is convinced that UMNO should be given the front seat in the administration as the people felt that the current government has failed,” said another source.

Muhyiddin’s besieged administration has been hanging by a fraying thread for months amid leadership challenges from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and a divisive intra-coalition feud with UMNO, whose lawmakers have – until now ­– given Muhyiddin enough support to maintain a razor-thin majority of 113 out of 220 seats in Parliament.

“Muhyiddin’s administration will be officially a minority government but won’t collapse due to UMNO’s pullout, because a negative majority against the prime minister does not equate to a positive majority for his alternative,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development.

“In other words, a prime minister cannot be ousted without a majority-backed replacement readily in place,” he added. “Hence, without a formal defeat in the House, opponents of Muhyiddin must be able to present a positive majority for the next prime minister to the Palace in order to oust his government.”

Zahid has in recent months made alleged overtures to back Anwar amid speculation the two sides are negotiating a deal to form a new government. The two men had been allies in the 1990s during their time in UMNO when it was headed by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, but have been in bitterly opposed political camps for over two decades.

Malaysia’s then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

An audio recording of the two men speaking over the phone leaked in April, a conversation both have unconvincingly denied took place, appeared to show close rapport and political coordination between the two leaders, even as Zahid publicly vowed not to work with Anwar and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition in a likely bid to neutralize attacks against himself.

With some UMNO members up in arms over the party’s leadership purportedly colluding with Anwar, Zahid reiterated that stance in his recent press conference, saying he would not support Anwar as prime minister or ally with PH and its largest component, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese-majority party that has long been a bogeyman of Malay Muslim nationalists.

Wong said he saw the UMNO supreme council’s maneuver as the best “strategic move” to prevent an effective takeover of UMNO by the faction amenable to working with Muhyiddin’s smaller party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), but that rejecting cooperation with other opposition forces would prove self-defeating.

“By rejecting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s prime-ministership and partnership with DAP, UMNO has simply shot itself in the foot,” said the academic, alluding to the fact that Zahid’s camp would not be able to cobble together the majority needed to formally oust the Muhyiddin government without support from across the political aisle.

Whether or not Zahid’s anti-Muhyiddin camp will ultimately prevail depends heavily on securing support from UMNO-led state governments, whose access to administrative resources would be crucial to sustaining grassroots support for the party in a protracted fight against Bersatu ahead of the next election, Wong added.

Some observers believe Zahid’s gambit could potentially backfire, with UMNO ministers opposed to his regime change bid expelled from the party only to be absorbed by Bersatu. That would leave UMNO on the opposition benches with even fewer representatives in Parliament and standing alone after ruling out cooperation with others.

Many see Zahid’s drastic move as a reflection of his tenuous hold over the party leadership. Wednesday’s cabinet reshuffle was seen as weakening Zahid’s influence within the party while strengthening the hand of the pro-PN faction. Analysts suggest lawmakers opposed to Zahid could ignore his directive and rally support for his ouster. 

Many observers believe Zahid is cynically using his position as UMNO president as leverage to overcome his legal troubles. Former premier Najib Razak, his main ally, has already been found guilty of corruption and abuse of power, and was sentenced to 12 years in jail last July, though he is appealing the verdict.

UMNO’s withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin’s government makes good on a 14-day ultimatum issued by Zahid on June 21 that called on the government to convene Parliament, which was effectively suspended in January under emergency rule. He said its failure to do so would be tantamount to “treason.”

Zahid didn’t publicly specify consequences if the PN government failed to comply, but the move was understood to be a threat to withdraw support for the ruling coalition, a move that delegates at the UMNO general assembly in March had endorsed with the caveat that support for the government be maintained until Parliament is dissolved.

Malaysia’s Minister of International Trade and Industry Mohamed Azmin Ali (front R) and Minister of Defence Ismail Sabri Yaakob (front C) attending a parliament session in Kuala Lumpur, November 2, 2020. Photo: Malaysia’s Department of Information via AFP / Famer Roheni

After being continually pressed by Malaysia’s federal monarch and royal households to reconvene Parliament amid a public outcry over its prolonged suspension concurrent with the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, authorities announced this week plans for a special five-day sitting of the legislature starting on July 26.

A July 5 statement from the prime minister’s office said the purpose of the sitting would be solely to brief legislators on the government’s coronavirus-focused National Recovery Plan (NRP) and to approve amendments to allow for an as-of-yet unscheduled future hybrid Parliament sitting to be conducted both virtually and in-person.

A formal defeat of Muhyiddin’s government would have to be initiated either through a vote of no confidence, a rejection of a royal address that formally marks the beginning of a sitting, or the defeat of a national budget, none of which will be possible at the upcoming five-day session exclusively dedicated to government matters.

In other words, the PN government has “smartly postponed the threat of parliamentary defeat,” according to Wong, at least until the envisioned hybrid sitting of Parliament convenes. That will be the case unless Muhyiddin resigns or his opponents hand majority support to another prime ministerial candidate.

“As the country both cannot go without a government and cannot have an election now, allowing Muhyiddin to stay in power as a minority government is the most reasonable solution,” said Wong, who opined that the ongoing political turmoil would distract from the government’s widely criticized as faltering pandemic response.

“The price that Malaysians pay for the Bersatu-UMNO showdown may be reflected in the number of new Covid-19 cases within a week.”