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Malaysia in transition

Muhyiddin cornered as UMNO formally tells king it drops support

Move by Malaysia's largest party adds pressure on prime minister to resign

Members of Malaysia's parliament attend a lower house session on July 26.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's largest political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has officially informed the king that it has withdrawn support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, further destabilizing a weak government battling rising COVID-19 cases.

In a news conference on Tuesday, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Muhyiddin has effectively lost his majority in the lower house, as statutory declarations of UMNO lawmakers wishing to retract support for the premier had been submitted to King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin.

A federal cabinet minister from UMNO, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Shamsul Anuar Nasarah, resigned the same day. The moves are sure to heap additional pressure on Muhyiddin to step down.

Ahmad Zahid declared that "the UMNO supreme council has unanimously decided to withdraw support for the National Alliance and Muhyiddin. He must take responsibility by relinquishing his position immediately as a result of his failure to adhere to and clash with the king's advice."

The palace criticized Muhyiddin last week for canceling a coronavirus state of emergency without the king's consent, suggesting the decision was unconstitutional. The government side insisted it acted appropriately.

At his news conference, Ahmad Zahid was flanked by at least 10 members of parliament, including former Prime Minister Najib Razak -- all of whom signed the withdrawal declarations.

The Muhyiddin-led government was already hanging on by a slim majority of two seats among the 220 lawmakers. UMNO has 38 lower house members while Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) has 31.

One wrinkle is that Ahmad Zahid is not believed to have full control over UMNO. The party is divided into two factions, one siding with him and another with Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was recently appointed deputy prime minister by Muhyiddin. The latter's faction is larger, sources in the party told Nikkei Asia.

Internal party politics aside, however, the withdrawal of Ahmad Zahid's faction still appears to be enough to deny Muhyiddin a majority in the lower house.

In a statement, Shamsul Anuar said he was siding with his party in its stand against Muhyiddin's government. "Taking into account the party's decisions and stances, as an UMNO member who is obedient and loyal to the party, I hereby resign as a member of the cabinet of ministers of the federal government," he said.

Sultan Abdullah is expected to summon Muhyiddin for an audience following these developments. This could lead to the prime minister being given a choice: either prove he still has enough support, or resign immediately.

Under the Malaysian constitution, the resignation of the prime minister effectively disbands the cabinet. Under these circumstances, the king could appoint a new prime minister who he believes would command majority support in the lower house, or dissolve the parliament for an election.

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