Malaysian politics is reeling after the country’s largest party announced yesterday that it was withdrawing its support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, urging him to step down. The decision by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) came just hours after Muhyiddin appointed a senior UMNO official as deputy prime minister, a move widely seen as an attempt to heal a months-long rift between the coalition partners.
In a statement issued after a meeting of UMNO’s top decision-making body, party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the decision to withdraw support from Muhyiddin was due to the government’s failure to curb the Coronavirus pandemic. He said that its inconsistent policies and half-baked lockdown measures have caused considerable economic disruptions, without halting the deadly march of the disease.
Zahid urged Muhyiddin to resign and make way for a temporary leader to take over until the pandemic eases and a general election can be held safely. “This is important to allow a government that is truly stable and has the mandate of the majority of the people to be formed,” he said in the statement.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after helping precipitate the collapse of the reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition that triumphed at the 2018 elections. But enjoying just a slim majority in parliament, he has been forced to fend off a series of challenges from opposition parties and from UMNO, which, after losing power in 2018, banded together with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu to form the current Perikatan Nasional coalition government. UMNO currently comprises 38 of the coalition’s 113 lawmakers, compared to 31 from Bersatu.
On several occasions over the past year, UMNO has reportedly mulled pulling its support from Muhyiddin, seemingly unhappy at playing second fiddle to his Bersatu party. (In power from Malaysia’s independence in 1957 to its shock election loss in 2008, UMNO is not a party used to being on the outer.) Earlier this year, UMNO said the party will not work with Muhyiddin’s alliance in the next general election.
The political maneuvering has been complicated by the fact that Muhyiddin’s tenure has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played into the political situation in complex ways. In January, Muhyiddin obtained royal assent for a state of emergency on the pretext of fighting COVID-19, which saw parliament suspended and the leader essentially ruling by decree.
Muhyiddin’s rivals have criticized the emergency as a way of shoring up his political position, a claim that is hard to refute given the fact that it has done little to stop the coronavirus. Surging infections pushed the country into a second national lockdown on June 1, and Malaysia currently leads Southeast Asia in terms of the number of COVID-19 infections per capita, with nearly 800,000 cases.
Zahid echoed the claim in his statement yesterday, saying that with parliament unable to sit, support for Muhyiddin’s leadership and efforts in fighting COVID-19 cannot be put to the test. He noted that the country’s death toll from the pandemic had doubled since the beginning of the current lockdown, and now stands at 5,768.
If COVID-19 offered a convenient political pretext for Muhyiddin to suspend parliament and consolidate his political position, it has also granted UMNO a similarly handy pretext for withdrawing its support from his government.
While UMNO’s announcement could potentially trigger the collapse of Muhyiddin’s government, its immediate effects are unclear given that parliament is currently not in session. No party or coalition of parties currently has a clear majority, and UMNO ministers have so far not said whether they would quit in response to their party’s decision.
Attorney General Idrus Harun said in a statement today that Muhyiddin’s government will continue to exercise its executive powers as there are no “clear facts” to show that the leader has lost his majority. But Muhyiddin this week agreed to let parliament reconvene on July 26, ahead of the expiration of the emergency on August 1, a decision that came in response to growing pressure, including rare interventions from the nation’s king. At this point, Muhyiddin’s claim to a continued majority will almost certainly be tested, and will likely be followed by a frenzy of horse-trading to see who, if anyone, will replace Muhyiddin as Malaysia’s leader.