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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia parliament speaker switch lifts Muhyiddin's survival odds

PM uses 'razor thin' majority to head off Mahathir's no-confidence motion

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin observes parliamentary proceedings on July 13.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's lower house of parliament has a new speaker -- a sudden change that could help to strengthen Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's grip on power for the next three years.

The vote on the appointment of former Election Commission Chairman Azhar Azizan as speaker on Monday showed Muhyiddin enjoys the support of only a narrow majority in the house. But the move could ensure that a no-confidence motion against the premier filed by his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, never sees the light of day.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Muhyiddin's push to change the speaker "killed several birds with one stone." The outgoing speaker, Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, a retired judge, called his own ouster "extraordinary."

The motion of no confidence from Mahathir, who turned 95 last week, is the 27th item on the parliamentary agenda. Typically, government business gets priority over motions submitted by individual members, which often end up never being debated at all.

In any case, a no-confidence motion must be approved by the speaker before it is taken up by the house for debate. Since Azhar is Muhyiddin's personal choice for speaker, the appointment appears to boost his chances of survival against Mahathir, who resigned as prime minister earlier this year after a political coup, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, also eyeing the nation's top job.

The opposition bloc claimed that the removal was illegal. But despite the resistance, the motion was bulldozed through and approved by a vote of 111-109.

Sivamurugan Pandian, a professor at Malaysia's University of Science, said Azhar's appointment proves Muhyiddin has a "a thin-razor majority." Until Monday, it was unclear whether the prime minister commanded a majority at all, as it was the first time the parliament had convened, barring an opening ceremony, since he took office on March 1.

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reacts during the parliament session on July 13.   © Reuters

"The political ecosystem has changed, and therefore the government feels they need a new speaker who fits" the current political conditions, Sivamurugan told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Razor thin" was also how Oh described Muhyiddin's advantage in the house. "He has a very shaky grip on the parliament," Oh said. "But Muhyiddin is very smart and he has very good advisers in placing Azhar as the speaker."

Oh said Azhar's appointment will also allow Muhyiddin to name his own person as the new head of the election authority. That individual would play a crucial role if the prime minister decides to call a snap election soon.

Oh also expressed surprise at Azhar's willingness to accept the job, given his track record as a human rights lawyer and reputation for political neutrality.

Sivamurugan said Azhar performed well as the election commission chairman and suggested he is a good pick to safeguard the legislature's integrity, competence and accountability.

The outgoing speaker, Mohamad Ariff, told the media after his removal that Malaysia had set a new precedent by ousting a sitting speaker before the dissolution of the house for an election. The only similar example he could think of was in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, where a speaker was removed in the 1990s over corruption allegations.

"In a normal situation, after a general election, the government that wins that general election would nominate someone to become the speaker," he said. "What happened now is extraordinary, and I do not know if there are any other nations except Trinidad and Tobago which did something like this. In the United Kingdom, in the House of Commons for 800 years, never was a speaker kicked out before parliament was dissolved. This should be the system practiced by Commonwealth nations."

Azhar, a lawyer by training, was sworn in without a vote as there were no other nominees for the post, leading to a walkout by opposition lawmakers.

Despite vowing to strengthen parliamentary and constitutional democracy during his inaugural speech, Azhar was booed throughout his short remarks.

"Just as the party in power must act responsibly," the new speaker said, "so must the opposition members."

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