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Malaysia in transition

Muhyiddin and Mahathir rekindle feud as Malaysia looks beyond virus

First no-confidence vote in parliament's history looms over PM

Allies-turned-rivals Muhyiddin Yassin, left, and Mahathir Mohamad in 2018: The former toppled the latter to become prime minister earlier this year.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin faces mounting pressure to prove he has the support of parliament's lower house, after 10 weeks of political calm as the country hunkered down against the coronavirus.

Hanging over Muhyiddin is a no-confidence motion submitted by the man he toppled in an internal coup before taking power on March 1 -- Mahathir Mohamad, his former mentor and the head of his own party.

The lower house speaker approved the motion earlier this month, but did not set a date for the vote, and the prime minister has ensured there is no chance of a judgment when parliament sits briefly on Monday. Nevertheless, Malaysia's political heavyweights are clearly gearing up for their next round.

This Monday, the lower house was scheduled to convene for one day to discuss two supplementary bills validating the government's pandemic spending packages. Longtime prime minister hopeful Anwar Ibrahim was also expected to be named opposition leader. This past Wednesday, however, Muhyiddin's government abruptly changed the plan, citing a need to focus on the outbreak even though most sectors of the economy have reopened.

Now, as soon as King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah officially opens the proceedings, the session will adjourn until July 13.

Mahathir was not pleased to learn of this. "How can this be called a government when MPs are not allowed to speak even when there is a parliamentary sitting?" the 94-year-old said in a video message. "This government is, in fact, illegitimate," he added. "I think Muhyiddin is illegitimate."

On-again, off-again allies Mahathir and Anwar, both seasoned politicians, have vowed to continue opposing the premier. But Muhyiddin himself has a reputation as a survivor and may have some cards to play between now and July.

No sitting Malaysian leader has been subjected to a no-confidence motion in parliament's 61-year history. But under the law, once such a motion is put forth, it should be debated and voted on by the 222 elected representatives in the lower house. Members also have the right to abstain.

If Muhyiddin, the country's eighth prime minister, secures the confidence of at least 112 members, he will keep his job. If not, he would be expected to tender his resignation, along with his cabinet. Alternatively, he could ask the king to dissolve parliament; if the monarch agrees, a fresh election would have to be called within 60 days.

At his discretion, the king could also invite a lower house member who, in his judgment, commands majority support to become prime minister.

Muslims pray before breaking their fast at the end of the day during the holy month of Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur on May 13.   © Reuters

While overseeing the battle against the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 7,000 people in the country, Muhyiddin has been actively shoring up his position, aiming to hold his ground at least until the next scheduled election in 2023. Plum appointments at state-linked companies have gone to key politicians from the government's two biggest coalition partners -- the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Muhyiddin needs backing from both UMNO and PAS to stay on, since his own faction is the decidedly junior partner in the ruling coalition.

"No senior leader from either side of the political divide is assured of non-wavering support from other members of the parliament, even those supposedly in the same camp," Oh told Nikkei. He expects Muhyiddin will have to continue to answer to the demands of all his purported supporters, while using his advantage as the incumbent to lure a few new ones across the aisle.

Muhyiddin is also rumored to have had a hand in undermining Mahathir's son and political heir, Mukhriz Mahathir, as chief minister of the northern state Kedah. Mukhriz -- who is challenging Muhyiddin for the presidency of their party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), in upcoming polls -- has apparently lost the confidence of the Kedah legislative assembly after some ruling party assembly members jumped ship to the opposition.

The prime minister has reportedly called a meeting of Bersatu's supreme council on Monday, without inviting Mahathir and Mukhriz. Both men, like Muhyiddin, are among the party's founding members. There is speculation that the attendees will discuss removing the pair for breaching party principles.

Still, Oh would not rule out a comeback by Mahathir and Anwar. "In the Malaysian political context, all sorts of comebacks are possible if the circumstances are ripe, as has been exemplified by Muhyiddin."

Sivamurugan Pandian, a political science professor at Malaysia's University of Science, concurred. Both Mahathir and Anwar "are politicians with strong personalities," he said. "They will remain relevant."

Few, he added, would have ever imagined Mahathir's historic return as prime minister in May 2018 -- but it happened all the same.

Yet, Sivamurugan stressed that if Mahathir and Anwar are to make an impactful return, they need to resolve a burning question between them -- who would be the next prime minister.

"They have to decide on who will be their PM choice," he said, "and how Mahathir can still play a role when they have already decided Anwar as the opposition leader."

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