Malaysia’s Largest Party Says it May Withdraw From Govt Before Polls

S.Adie Zul and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2021-03-29
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Malaysia’s Largest Party Says it May Withdraw From Govt Before Polls UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi speaks at the party’s general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, March 28, 2021.
[Photo courtesy UMNO media]

The dominant party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition might break ranks with the government before the next general election is called, top leaders said, even though the party had promised earlier it would back Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin until the national polls.

The United Malays National Organization had agreed to support the Muhyiddin government until August, UMNO Deputy President Mohamad Hasan said during the party’s general assembly session over the weekend, referring to Aug. 1, when an emergency declared by the king is scheduled to end.

“So, earlier we had agreed to pull out in August, so we have to pull out in August,” Hasan said at the UMNO general assembly, held on Saturday and Sunday.

“[N]ow we have announced what we want to do, so let’s prepare, so if there is nothing happening in August, we walk out from the government,” he said, speaking about Muhyiddin’s promise to advise the king to call general elections when the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

Muhyiddin, an unelected PM, however, had never pinpointed a date by when a national election would be held. And UMNO had also not specified a date until which it would stay with the ruling coalition, when it said on March 4 that it would not contest the next election with the PM’s alliance.

On Saturday, Hasan said there would be no government without UMNO as its leader. Without the support of the biggest Malay party, there also would be no stability in the government, he said.

“No other Malay party has the influence and moderation that UMNO has,” Hasan said.

Meanwhile, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the party’s rank-and-file had approved withdrawing from the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition whenever the top leaders of the party decided it was time to go.

“It is understood that the delegates have given the mandate to the president and the supreme council to determine that we can withdraw from the PN government any time,” Zahid said.

The party’s members want to split with Perikatan in August, he added.

UMNO’s alliance with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party has been rocky for months. UMNO feels it has not reaped the rewards of holding the most parliamentary seats in the ruling coalition, observers had noted.

After the king, on Muhyiddin’s advice, imposed a national emergency in January, the prime minister also suspended parliament, a move that opposition parties and UMNO criticized. As one, they said that Muhyiddin only wanted to hold on to power because, at the time, his administration had lost majority support.

As it is, even with UMNO supporting the coalition, Perikatan had a razor-thin majority in parliament.

And it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly how many lawmakers support Muhyiddin. Since January, three UMNO lawmakers have withdrawn support to his government, while three opposition lawmakers have pledged their support to him after quitting Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR).

Muhyiddin had said in January that his advice to the king to impose an emergency was not because he wanted to hold on to power, but because it was necessary to deal with the pandemic. He has repeatedly said since then that he would advise the king to dissolve parliament and hold elections when the pandemic ends.

‘Common sense seems to be in short supply’

The federal government may collapse if UMNO withdraws support to Perikatan before the next election, said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

If current UMNO ministers in the alliance government quit, the government would lose its legitimacy, he said, and after that it’s anyone’s game.

“Darurat [the emergency] may not be a strong justification for the government to remain in power, and the Yang Dipertuan Agong [the king] may pick someone who he thinks commands the majority support of the legislature,” Mokhtar told BenarNews.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with the king as head of state. While his position is largely ceremonial, and he has to act in accordance with the wishes of the government, the king still has the discretion to appoint an MP who commands the majority support of elected members of the lower house of parliament.

The emergency, though, has muddied the waters, said Andrew Khoo, chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council’s constitution committee.

Khoo believes the government would stay intact if the emergency were to be extended.

“They [UMNO] are not saying they will pull out now. That is because the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, under section 11, states that for as long as the emergency is in force, the existing cabinet shall continue to exercise its functions. So, if the emergency is extended, the cabinet would have to continue as is,” he told BenarNews.

The ordinance also does not spell out whether cabinet ministers are allowed to resign from their post during the emergency period, Khoo said. He was referring to how several UMNO members serve as ministers in the Muhyiddin government.

“Does the ordinance also prevent them from resigning? Well, I don’t know. This kind of wording has never been used before,” Khoo said.

“It [the emergency ordinance] seems to have been drafted that way to achieve a particular purpose. Can it stop someone resigning? Can it stop someone dying in office? Common sense would suggest it cannot, but common sense seems to be in short supply at the moment.”

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