Malaysia next week begins its first regular parliamentary session since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took the reins more than four months ago, amid signs that a no-confidence vote or even a snap election may decide how long he will stay in power.
The opposition seems determined to unseat Muhyiddin’s unelected government but is divided over who should be its candidate to replace him as PM, if early polls are called for later this year. At the same time, signs have emerged that partners in the ruling bloc are not entirely behind the 73-year-old leader either.
According to political analysts and multiple sources on both sides, a motion may be put forward early in the new session to change the House speaker – a move favored by Muhyiddin that could pave the way for him to call snap elections.
“It’s a realistic and ultimately effective step,” Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews, referring to the prospect of early polls.
Muhyiddin leads the Bersatu party but the anchor party in his coalition is the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which dominated Malaysian government for 61 years before being swept out of power in the 2018 general election.
According to a report by the Nikkei Asian Review last month, sources close to the prime minister said he was eyeing snap polls with the intention to “straighten the messy political scene by seeking a fresh five-year mandate from the people.”
UMNO holds 39 seats in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) ruling bloc, which, according to the latest information posted on parliament’s website, controls 114 seats in the 222-seat chamber. UMNO has separately formed an alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), another member of the ruling bloc. The two-party alliance is known as Muafakat Nasional.
“The Malay heartland desires UMNO or PAS, which now join forces, not this amorphous Muhyiddin faction of Bersatu,” Oh said.
Motions to remove speaker
The parliamentary session, which opens Monday and is set to run 25 days until Aug. 27, will be the legislature’s first regular session since Muhyiddin took power, after a half-day sitting was held without debates or motions nearly two months ago.
Parliament’s order of business for the session will include motions to change the house speaker, as well as an already approved motion, introduced earlier this year by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – now a leader of the opposition – to challenge Muhyiddin through a confidence vote.
But Mahathir’s motion may not materialize if Muhyiddin succeeds in first removing House Speaker Mohd Ariff Md Yusof, who in early May had approved the motion by the former PM. Mahathir, who turned 95 on Friday, led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government until its collapse in late February.
Mahathir has since effectively split from Pakatan, which is now led by veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), and is Pakatan’s choice for prime minister.
On Thursday, Anwar indicated that Pakatan would try to block a motion to change the house speaker.
“PH will defend the speaker. Ariff, who is a former judge, has done a good job. The changing of the speaker in a mid-session has never happened before,” Anwar said.
Meanwhile, alliances within Perikatan Nasional itself are shaky, and the opposition is divided between a faction led by Anwar and Pakatan, and another headed by Mahathir, according to sources from various parties on both sides.
Although they remain in Pakatan, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the faith-based Amanah party have said they support Mahathir to return as prime minister, but he has said that he would prefer to nominate Shafie Apdal of the Sabah-based Warisan party for the PM’s job.
Last week, UMNO demonstrated yet again that it remains a force to contend with in Malaysian politics when it won the first by-election held since the new government came to power.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak helped rally UMNO to victory in the Chini by-election in the Pahang state assembly, after a judge allowed one of Najib’s corruption trials tied to the 1MDB financial scandal to be delayed so that he could help a candidate campaign. Chini is located within Najib’s Pekan constituency in Pahang.
The landslide victory in Chini was proof of how the Malay heartlands – the main battleground for UMNO, PAS and Bersatu – still prefer the traditional Malay-based parties that formed the Muafakat Nasional alliance last year, the 66-year-old ex-leader said.
“Muafakat Nasional (MN) has the compatibility of the voters in the Malay heartland. That is the truth that could not be cast aside,” Najib said.
“PN is still new. The voters are still questioning whether it is a good fit,” Najib told a special interview posted live on The Malaysia Gazette Facebook on Thursday (June 9).
In Oh’s opinion, UMNO-PAS would benefit the most from a snap general election, as they have consolidated their voter support, which together amounted to 75 percent in the 2018 polls.
“The Muhyiddin faction of Bersatu is bound to be marginalized as it is disliked by MN and distrusted by the PH side,” the analyst said.
“The only saving grace for Bersatu would be the looming internal power struggle in UMNO, which may see some factions losing out and having to find another convenient vehicle to park themselves, or at least to ally with, for political leverage,” he added.
Hadi Azmi and Nisha David contributed to this report from Kuala Lumpur.