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Malaysia in transition

Muhyiddin eyes unprecedented snap election to vanquish Mahathir

Sources see Malaysian polls by March 2021, while coronavirus stimulus is fresh

KUALA LUMPUR -- Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is considering a snap election, possibly by March 2021, as he looks to shore up his shaky position in parliament.

Sources close to Muhyiddin told the Nikkei Asian Review that the prime minister has expressed an intention to "straighten the messy political scene by seeking a fresh five-year mandate from the people."

Speculation over an election has been swirling in Malaysia in recent days, with some suggesting one could be held sometime this year. This would be highly unusual so soon after Muhyiddin took office: He only became the country's eighth prime minister in March after a political coup led by opposition parties forced his mentor-turned-nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, to resign.

Malaysia has never had a snap election, in the sense of a vote called in the first three years of a prime minister's tenure.

But Mahathir has been keeping the pressure on, insisting he still has parliamentary support and tabling a no-confidence motion. While Muhyiddin dodged a vote on the motion when the legislature briefly convened in May -- thanks to an immediate adjournment to focus on the coronavirus -- he is believed to be weighing a dramatic move, if not this year then soon after.

Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the premier's trusted aides and ministers are quietly laying the groundwork for federal polls, eyeing the first quarter of 2021. That would be almost three years after the Mahathir-led Alliance of Hope, which included Muhyiddin, ended the 63-year reign of the National Front coalition, then headed by Najib Razak.

Azhar Azizan Harun, chairman of the Election Commission, told Nikkei that he has not received any indication from the government about a snap poll but stressed the authority would be ready for anything. "Under the current constitutional framework, we have 60 days to run a general election to its completion after the parliament is dissolved," he explained. "It might be challenging but we are always up to it."

Muhyiddin apparently hopes to cash in on his government's fairly successful handling of the pandemic, as well as crowd-pleasing stimulus packages. A swift lockdown has held the country's coronavirus cases to about 8,500 as of Wednesday, with a modest death toll of 121, while the economic support measures are worth well over $60 billion combined.

The prime minister will be counting on the votes of Muslim ethnic Malays for his party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), along with his current allies, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Talks to establish a formal three-way alliance began recently.

"The Malays are angry with Mahathir because he was under the influence of the DAP," one source said, referring to the ethnic Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party. The breakdown of Bersatu's coalition with the DAP, coupled with Mahathir's reluctance to clarify when he would transfer power to heir apparent Anwar Ibrahim, triggered the two-week political crisis that ended with Muhyiddin taking office on March 1.

The source, however, said something has to give. "The prime minister also cannot go on governing for the next three years with a thin majority of four MPs in Dewan Rakyat" -- the lower house. "None of the important bills will go through and that would be detrimental for the administration."

Muhyiddin's advantage in the chamber, which seats 222 elected representatives, may in fact be as narrow as three, according to the latest count.

The source said Muhyiddin thinks a snap election in the next nine months will guarantee a victory, especially with the opposition struggling to decide on a prime ministerial candidate as Mahathir and Anwar continue to squabble.

"Bersatu, UMNO and PAS are already moving their election machineries to strengthen their presence in every parliamentary constituency," the insider said. The source added that the prime minister has tasked Anwar's ally-turned-rival, Azmin Ali, with wooing non-Malay voters.

Muhyiddin, according to the source, has not ruled out merging Bersatu with UMNO -- Najib's old party -- to create a stronger force, even if it means compromising on power and seat allocations. Many current Bersatu lawmakers are UMNO veterans, including the prime minister himself.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, suggested Muhyiddin might have no choice but to merge or bow to the dominant UMNO and PAS. He said UMNO -- given its influence and vast history -- is likely to play a leadership role in the coalition heading into the election, potentially leaving Bersatu as the No. 3 player and Muhyiddin with no guarantee of staying prime minister.

"So PAS appears to be willing to play second fiddle to UMNO, albeit with the official allowance of creeping advancement of its rabid religious goals as a condition," he said. "Muhyiddin is in no realistic bargaining position with regards to UMNO, as his Bersatu candidates, even if allowed to run, would not win without the combined full support of UMNO and PAS."

The final piece of this complex puzzle could be a new multiracial party that Azmin is expected to launch sometime soon.

Muhyiddin will be looking to Azmin Ali, the trade minister and his right-hand man, to draw non-Malay voters away from Anwar Ibrahim.   © Reuters

Azmin, seen as Muhyiddin's confidant and second to him in the government, is likely to do this to bring in multiethnic supporters from his former People's Justice Party, led by Anwar. Unverified media reports say Azmin could team up with former UMNO Vice President Hishammuddin Hussein, the current foreign minister and son of Malaysia's third prime minister, Hussein Onn.

"Most likely Bersatu, UMNO and PAS cover the Malays while Azmin would be the face for the non-Malays," a source said. "This way, Muhyiddin will remain PM for all Malaysians."

Sivamurugan Pandian, a political science professor at Malaysia's University of Science, told Nikkei that a snap election would provide Muhyiddin's administration with political and moral legitimacy, putting an end to opposition criticism that it is a "backdoor government."

It remains anyone's guess how the voting would unfold, but Sivamurugan sees potential for Malays to line up behind Muhyiddin's coalition due to the racial politics of some parties. The DAP, once a formidable player, is now seen as a liability when it comes to attracting Malay voters, though it remains popular with non-Malays.

"We might see a swing among the Malay voters especially at rural and secondary cities for the National Alliance (Bersatu, UMNO and PAS), as most of them are inclined toward Malay Muslim-centric political cooperation," Sivamurugan said.

Meanwhile, Oh thinks the Anwar-led forces are likely to dominate urban and suburban seats, where the UMNO's racial ideology and PAS' religiosity remain anathema among more progressive segments of society.

But he said that the "National Alliance is likely to sweep the rural and semi-rural seats, where the Alliance of Hope's allegedly more liberal persuasion is simply not acceptable to a predominantly conservative audience."

"As the Malaysian parliamentary composition is heavily skewed toward the latter seats," the National Alliance's overall chances of winning are "higher," Oh said.

An empty street in Kuala Lumpur during the coronavirus lockdown in March: The economy grew just 0.7% in the first quarter and likely deteriorated in the second.   © Reuters

Some critics question the impact of a snap election on the already suffering economy.

Malaysia eked out 0.7% growth in the first quarter, and the government expects an even worse result for the second quarter, taking into account the nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus. Unemployment is expected to swell to 5.5% -- the equivalent of 860,000 people -- by year-end.

The last election in May 2018 cost the government $116.9 million. According to the Election Commission's Azhar, the next one is expected to cost much more.

"With many new initiatives that we have taken so far that are focused on creating a better and improved voter experience, a general election would now cost substantially higher than the cost of the 14th general election," the chairman said.

One question mark is whether younger voters would be allowed to cast ballots.

Last July, Mahathir's government amended the constitution to lower the voting age to 18, from 21. This would add as many as 7.8 million new voters to the rolls by 2023 -- on top of the 14.9 million registered voters in 2018.

Azhar said a snap election in the medium term would only involve the old electoral rolls, as the new ones are supposed to coincide with the implementation of an automatic registration system. He said this would only be ready by July 2021, though the commission is working to bring it forward.

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