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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's Muhyiddin on thinner ice despite key parties' lifeline

UMNO renews support but analysts see failed emergency bid further undermining PM

A woman passes a mural depicting embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 27.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has won fresh backing from key parties in the country's governing coalition, shielding him from calls to resign after a failed bid to declare a national emergency and suspend parliament.

With rivals and some prominent figures in the coalition openly opposing his leadership, however, analysts say the premier's position is dicier than ever.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) say they want Muhyiddin to continue leading the country through its latest wave of COVID-19 infections. Monday brought a single-day record of 1,240 new cases, bringing the total to 27,805.

The intensifying health crisis has coincided with weeks of political turmoil, as Muhyiddin counts on a razor-thin majority in the legislature while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim insists he is the one backed by a majority of parliamentarians -- including some UMNO lawmakers.

UMNO held an emergency meeting of its lower house representatives on Monday, prompting speculation that it might pull out of the ruling coalition. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is reported to have advocated backing Anwar at the meeting -- even though Anwar helped bring about his downfall in the 2018 election by teaming up with Mahathir Mohamad.

Instead, the UMNO members decided to stick by Muhyiddin.

Yet Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst from National Science University, told Nikkei Asia that this lifeline for Muhyiddin merely reflects the wishes of Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, who urged politicians to avoid unnecessary tension as the country grapples with COVID-19.

Muhyiddin Yassin, left, was once a deputy to former Prime Minister Najib Razak, right. Najib has reportedly encouraged his fellow UMNO members to support Muhyiddin's rival, Anwar Ibrahim.   © Reuters

The prime minister "may have to address issues related to internal collaboration in order to strengthen the coalition's position," Sivamurugan said. He suggested Muhyiddin should explore working with other parties, including the opposition, especially when it comes to fighting COVID-19 and passing the upcoming 2021 budget to be tabled next month.

The stakes for the budget bill are particularly high. Under Malaysian law, the government will face automatic dissolution if it is voted down in the lower house.

Critics alleged that Muhyiddin's proposal to declare a COVID-19 emergency -- which the king rejected -- was really about freezing parliament and foiling any attempts to overthrow his government with a vote of no confidence. The move would also have given the government full control over spending and the budget, without the need for lawmakers' approval.

Now, even with allied parties' renewed support, Muhyiddin remains on very shaky ground, according to Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

"He would have to continue to balance between the incessant demands of UMNO and the constant erosion of support directed from the Anwar side," he said. This is especially true, he added, after the rejection of the "despised" emergency bid.

Oh thinks Muhyiddin should resign "honorably" given the circumstances but believes his supporters will urge him to cling to power as long as possible, taking advantage of the country's fragmented political landscape.

Sivamurugan disagreed on that point, arguing Malaysia is better off if Muhyiddin stays on for now and seeks common ground with all parties -- at least until the COVID-19 crisis passes.

"The king never indicated that the prime minister should resign," he stressed. "In fact, it was stated that he is confident with [Muhyiddin's] leadership in handling COVID-19."

At last count, the Muhyiddin-led National Alliance had the support of 114 MPs, just above the minimum 112 needed to form a government. Anwar controlled 91 via the Hope Pact, comprising his People's Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the National Honest Party. Former premier Mahathir counted 15, including independents and the Sabah Heritage Party.

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