KUALA LUMPUR – Nearly five months of uncertainty over whether Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin commands a legitimate majority is set to end on Monday (July 13) when his government attempts to replace the Speaker of Parliament.
Topping the list of business when the House reconvenes are motions to replace the incumbent Speaker Ariff Yusof and his deputy Nga Kor Ming, both of whom were elected under the former Pakatan Harapan administration which governed from May 2018 to March this year.
The show of hands on these motions in the 222-strong chamber will effectively prove whether Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact has the numbers to govern.
How these opening hours of parliamentary debate – the first in over seven months – play out will also offer a clue as to whether Malaysia will head to the polls soon, even though the next general election is only due in late 2023.
Mr Muhyiddin’s numbers in Parliament have been questioned since he was sworn in as prime minister on March 1, after a week-long political crisis triggered by his departure from PH with about 40 other lawmakers from the coalition.
He formed government by joining hands with ertswhile rival parties including Umno, which helms the Barisan Nasional alliance that ruled the country for six decades before losing to PH in 2018.
The intervening months have seen several lawmakers from both the ruling PN and the PH-led opposition cross the floor, and estimates of Mr Muhyiddin’s support oscillate between a high of 115 MPs to the bare minimum simple majority of 112.
Mr Muhyiddin, who is president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, also faces a no-confidence motion proposed by his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, who had refused to join his coup and resigned as prime minister in late February.
The no-confidence motion was thwarted at the last Parliament sitting on May 18, when Mr Muhyiddin limited the session to only hear the King’s opening speech.
Mr Muhyiddin has been busy bolstering his position with the full extent of his executive power, by appointing nearly nine-tenths of government MPs as ministers or deputy ministers, as well as chairmen of state agencies and government-linked companies.
Ostensibly – barring any 11th hour changes to Monday’s parliamentary agenda – he finally feels confident of winning a vote in the House.
This is despite Bersatu MP Shahruddin Salleh switching to join Tun Dr Mahathir’s camp just last Friday, which, by most estimates, leaves PN with a precarious 113-strong bloc.
In the unprecedented event the government loses any votes during the 25-day parliamentary session, Mr Muhyiddin will probably ask the King to dissolve the legislative and pave the way for immediate polls. But the likely win means other scenarios open up.
If PN narrowly passes this test, Umno, its largest component, is set to redouble its push for fresh elections to be held as soon as possible. The former ruling party sees an opportunity to reestablish its dominance especially with the opposition – still unable to agree on a prime ministerial candidate – in shambles.
Umno last week affirmed its support for Mr Muhyiddin’s leadership, but qualified that its backing is just “for now”.
But Mr Muhyiddin might hold firm for a later date, with internal government polling showing the public broadly approves of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Official sources told The Straits Times the premier wants to launch another stimulus package – Malaysia’s fifth since the Covid-19 outbreak – before heading to the ballot.
“Key economic ministries are already putting it together and it could be ready in a couple of months,” said a source.
However, next year’s Budget is due to be tabled in November and plans for an entire year would present a broader opportunity to woo voters with spending pledges. Expenditure this year has been severely curtailed by lower oil prices, and an expected shortfall in tax collections from a battered economy.
“If Muhyiddin bolsters his majority and is confident of passing the Budget then the window for elections is likely the tail end of this year to mid-2021,” risk consultancy Eurasia Group’s Asia director Peter Mumford told ST. “Muhyiddin will want to head to the polls when the economy starts to recover but with positive perceptions of the government’s handling of the pandemic still fresh in voters’ minds.”