UMNO, the party of disgraced former leader Najib Razak, distanced itself Thursday from the coalition that returned it to power months ago, in a move that makes the razor-thin parliamentary majority of the current prime minister appear even more precarious.
The announcement came two days after a judge sentenced Najib to 12 years in prison and fined him U.S. $49 million after finding him guilty on seven charges related to the siphoning of funds from an affiliate of state investment fund 1MDB during his time in office.
That financial scandal led to his coalition’s defeat at the ballot box in May 2018, but his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party regained power in March as part of a new alliance, Perikatan Nasional (PN), after infighting caused the government of Mahathir Mohamad to collapse.
But UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Thursday his party would now focus on other partners.
“UMNO has decided not to join PN. Instead we will strengthen Muafakat Nasional (MN),” he said, referring to an alliance it formed with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) last year.
He said Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin himself was planning to abandon plans to register PN as a political bloc, and was instead seeking to join Muafakat along with his party, Bersatu.
“I leave it to the central committee of Muafakat Nasional to consider Bersatu’s request whether it has the potential to further strengthen Muafakat Nasional for the interest of the country and its people,” Zahid said.
“Support for the PN government was only based on support from UMNO and BN members of parliament, and state assemblymen in forming the federal government and certain state governments,” Zahid said in a statement.
Zahid, who served as deputy prime minister under Najib, has himself been charged with 45 criminal offenses, including abuse of power, criminal breach of power and money laundering in October 2018. The charges are linked to alleged bribes in exchange for helping companies win contracts for government projects when he served as home minister.
UMNO has 39 seats in parliament while PAS has 18 and Bersatu has 31. The prime minister must have the support of at least 112 MPs – one more than half of the 222-member parliament –to retain power.
Within hours of Najib’s conviction, Zahid, who sat next to the ex-prime minister throughout Tuesday’s courtroom deliberations, told reporters – but without elaborating – “surely, we will make a political decision as a result of today’s decision.”
‘Big brother dictates’
In March, Muhyiddin established Perikatan to create an alliance to support his bid for prime minister after the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Mahathir collapsed. Both Mahathir and Muhyiddin were leaders in Pakatan’s Bersatu party, but the party expelled Mahathir, his son Mukhriz and four other MPs who were affiliated with it, after Muhyiddin withdrew from Pakatan and formed a new ruling coalition.
Mukhriz Mahathir said Muhyiddin would be in a precarious situation whichever way the verdict in Najib’s first corruption trial played out.
“My take is that Muhyiddin himself doesn’t benefit no matter the outcome of Najib’s verdict,” Mukhriz told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview published on Thursday.
“If Najib had been acquitted, Muhyiddin would have been blamed for letting him off. If convicted as has happened, some in UMNO may consider this a betrayal on Muhyiddin’s part,” he added, referring to UMNO.
Either way, Muhyiddin’s government “is in an unenviable and precarious situation,” Mukhriz said.
Isham Jalil, the Selangor state UMNO chief who served as a special officer to Najib when he was prime minister, issued a statement calling Zahid’s political maneuver brilliant considering what could lie ahead for Muhyiddin and Bersatu.
“The optimum and least damaging choice for Bersatu now is to cozy up with UMNO and PAS in Muafakat Nasional,” he said Thursday.
He said Bersatu could not go back to Pakatan Harapan after Muhyiddin quit from that alliance in February. In addition, the party could not hope to maintain power alone after losing the trust of non-Malays who had voted for it as part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, he said.
“But they can contest in elections under Muafakat Nasional if the grassroots members of UMNO and PAS accept them,” Isham said.
Looking at Tuesday’s verdict from UMNO’s point of view, party members now want rein in Muhyiddin and pressure him to follow their agenda or risk losing power, according to political analyst Oh Ei Sun, who is a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“So instead of an equal partnership in the PN coalition, UMNO wants to go back to the old style under Barisan Nasional where ‘big brother dictates’ in Muafakat Nasional,” Oh told BenarNews.
UMNO had anchored Malaysian ruling coalitions for 61 years until it was defeated in the general election two years ago.
“Tuesday’s verdict was a factor, but the main factor is UMNO’s survival in the next general election,” another political analyst, Azmi Hassan of the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, told BenarNews. “Muhyiddin is the policy maker in PN, but through Muafakat Nasional structure, UMNO has a bigger voice.”
Sabah assembly dissolved
Meanwhile in Malaysian Borneo on Thursday, the Sabah state assembly was dissolved, thwarting an attempt by Muhyiddin’s camp to wrest power from incumbent Chief Minister Shafie Apdal through shifting allegiances among assembly members.
In the state capital Kota Kinabalu, Apdal – who serves as caretaker chief minister – said state Gov. Juhar Mahiruddin had agreed to dissolve the assembly after two separate audiences at the state palace late Wednesday and early Thursday.
“I wrote a letter yesterday, and I met with His Excellency the Governor last night. This morning I met him again and His Excellency had granted the dissolution of the assembly,” Shafie said while holding a copy of the letter.
In it, Shafie wrote that the political climate in the state was no longer stable because of threats by “certain individuals” who intend to forcefully get rid of the state government.
“Therefore it is best that we return the mandate to the people of Sabah to choose the new government,” the letter read.
Shafie said Sabah must hold a state election within 60 days said Shafie, adding that the election commission would decide on and announce the date.
The moves followed a surprise announcement on Wednesday by former Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, who claimed to have enough support to again lead the state government.
Speaking from his house in Kota Kinabalu, Musa stressed that he could be sworn in to replace Shafie.
“I am eligible to be appointed as Sabah chief minister by the governor as I have the support of the majority (of state representatives),” Musa said, adding that security personnel blocked him and an entourage from entering the palace to present declarations of support from 33 assembly members.