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Malaysia in transition

Anwar's leadership hopes hinge on Malaysia ruling party dissent

UMNO officials worry they will be convicted under Muhyiddin government

 Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim reacts during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 23, 2020.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- The latest move by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who created a political storm this week by claiming to hold enough support in the parliament to topple Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government, comes as officials in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) fear the outcomes of ongoing corruption trials, sources said.

Sources within UMNO told the Nikkei Asian Review that party members had expressed unhappiness with Muhyiddin's government after the July conviction of former premier Najib Razak in the multibillion-dollar corruption case relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad government investment fund.

"Some of the MPs who shifted support from Muhyiddin also have ongoing cases in court," said one source, who asked not to be named as the information is private.

"They feel that if they remain silent, they would face the same fate as Najib," this person said. Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison on seven counts of money laundering and abuse of power.

Anwar has said on Wednesday he commands a "formidable, strong and convincing" parliamentary majority to become Malaysia's ninth prime minister -- a position that he has sought for the past 22 years as a successor whose time never came.

The source said that "our [UMNO] president [Ahmad Zahid Hamidi] is very cautious in making sure that he can secure his political future, and Anwar can be a savior."

The 67-year-old Ahmad Zahid faces 87 criminal charges for various counts of corruption, money laundering and misuse of power. Besides Najib and Ahmad Zahid, at least five more UMNO lawmakers stand accused of various corruption charges in courts nationwide.

Local news website The Coverage reports that Ahmad Zahid and Najib are among 19 UMNO lawmakers who signed statutory declarations to support Anwar, turning their back on Muhyiddin. Neither the duo nor the 17 others named have denied the report.

Ei Sun Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said members of Ahmad Zahid's faction may be looking to see which side -- Muhyiddin or Anwar -- is willing to provide more favorable treatment in terms of posts, immunity and other benefits.

"This type of political support is typically not due to an ideological change of heart, but more likely to whichever side is giving a better offer," he said. "Anwar must have given better political offers to those who are willing to support him."

Malaysia's federal constitution stipulates the separation of powers between the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government. Both the executive and legislative are headed by the prime minister while the judiciary is led by the chief justice. Although deemed independent, the budget of the judiciary branch is decided by the Legal Affairs Division of the Prime Minister's Office.

At last count, the Muhyiddin-led National Alliance had the support of 114 members of parliament, a razor-thin majority compared with the minimum of 112 needed to form a federal government.

Anwar controlled 91 MPs via the Hope Pact, comprising his People's Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the National Honest Party. Former premier Mahathir Mohamad controls about 15 MPs among independents and the Sabah Heritage Party.

Anwar was the chosen successor to Mahathir during both of the latter's tenures as prime minister.

Mahathir in 1998 sacked Anwar as his deputy for corruption and sodomy allegations, for which he was jailed from April 1999 to 2004. He was charged again in July 2008 for sodomizing his personal aide and was sentenced to a five-year imprisonment in 2015. Anwar's supporters called both a political vendetta.

Mahathir and Anwar joined hands to defeat the Najib government in the May 2018 elections, after which the Hope Pact defeated the 61-year rule of National Front. Anwar was soon released after the victory on a full pardon by the Malaysian king.

After being the prime minister for 22 months, Mahathir resigned following an internal coup by Muhyiddin-led politicians. Anwar until then was touted as the prime minister-in-waiting. Ties between Mahathir and Anwar have been on a roller-coaster ride ever since.

Muslim-majority Malaysia criminalizes same-sex acts and offenders face caning and up to 20 years in prison. Anwar has also been perceived as liberal among some conservative Muslims.

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