KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's largest political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has openly ruled out working with embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in the forthcoming federal election, further weakening the governing National Alliance coalition.
Some 1,000 key UMNO members, who gathered at a Kuala Lumpur convention center this weekend for the party's annual general meeting, agreed to sever ties with Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) as soon as parliament is dissolved for the polls.
The two ethnic-Malay parties have maintained an uneasy collaboration since they banded together to oust Mahathir Mohamad, elevating Muhyiddin into power. But UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, speaking at the meeting on Sunday, bashed Bersatu as a "dishonest" partner and accused it of trying to belittle his mammoth party.
"I will reiterate our stand in facing the 15th general elections -- we stand by the UMNO supreme council's decision which is no Bersatu, no Anwar [Ibrahim] and no DAP," he said, referring to the opposition leader and the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party.
Ahmad Zahid dismissed any form of pre-election negotiations with the three groups.
The decision to contest separately will see UMNO, Bersatu and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) all vying for the same Malay voters once the election is called -- a move Muhyiddin has pledged to make when COVID-19 is under control.
PAS has yet to declare a partner for the election, though the party appears to have friendly relations with both UMNO and Bersatu.
"Everyone is asking, why did we resort to such action on Bersatu? It is only because of their dishonesty and trickery," Ahmad Zahid said, addressing delegates attending under coronavirus protocols. "They have the ill intention to destroy and replace UMNO and we will not be in cahoots with those who want to stab us," he said.
"It was not my decision alone but the party's supreme council and also the desire of the grassroots leaders," he said.
UMNO's grievances with Bersatu and the National Alliance include government decisions made without its input. One example is Muhyiddin's emergency declaration until this August, issued in the name of fighting COVID-19 but widely criticized as an attempt to delay the election.
The UMNO president said this ran counter to the party supreme council's position that parliament must be dissolved in January this year and the election called by March.
"Instead what we got was the declaration of emergency with the reason to fight COVID-19," he said. "But we know their true intention. We know there is a hidden agenda."
Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, senior associate at Vriens & Partners, told Nikkei Asia that Muhyiddin is in an unenviable position of having to stabilize the country's economic and health crises, but that this requires political legitimacy through fresh polls.
"He has made it known that he expects to call for elections in either the third or fourth quarter this year," Shazwan said.
"Intense talks between allies for divvying up of federal and state legislative seats to contest have begun," he added. "The issue of whether [Muhyiddin] has a clear majority will depend on whether UMNO decides to continue their alliance with him or align with Anwar."
On that question, UMNO appears to have given a clear answer.