Malaysian PM hangs on as Anwar’s chance slips away, for now

Anwar Ibrahim’s hopes of finally becoming Malaysia’s prime minister looked to have been dashed once more, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin set to hang onto power.

In a month of political turmoil Anwar has claimed to have won a majority support from MPs, including from the rival United Malays National Organisation party and met with the King to stake his claim, while Muhyiddin’s government has teetered on the brink of collapse.

Muhyiddin has a slender majority in the Parliament and the defection of any UMNO MPs – which had been mooted – would cause him to lose his majority.

The Prime Minister was also dealt a blow on Sunday when the King rejected his request to declare emergency rule to deal with the spiralling number of COVID-19 cases, which reached 1240 in a single day on Monday, and he faced calls to resign.

A declaration of emergency rule would have meant Parliament did not have to sit on November 2, which could have triggered a no confidence debate, and debate over the budget on November 6 would have been parked.

Now, Muhyiddin will have to negotiate the budget through the Parliament as planned, which will be far from straightforward given the prime minister has an untested majority of two seats.

The reprieve for the Prime Minister came after marathon meetings on Monday, during which UMNO and the Islamist PAS party agreed to keep in place their support for Muhyidin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition government – at least for now.

UMNO had earlier this month threatened to withdraw support for Muhyiddin, but it will now back him to ensure political stability and to focus efforts on managing the pandemic.

University of Tasmania Malaysian politics expert professor James Chin said that a month after Anwar launched his attempt to become prime minister – a post he has sought since 1998 – it appeared the status quo would remain.

“The next milestone is the budget, and I expect Muhyiddin will survive that. If he is to step down it will be after that – but that’s a big if,” Chin said. “The only way for Anwar to get back into the game is to rally those MPs not in the UMNO and PAS groups and block the budget.”

Malaysian political analyst Kean Wong said it was very likely political instability would continue in Malaysia, despite the King specifically asking for all sides to stop politicking and focus on the pandemic.

“We have three scenarios to look at now. First, Muhyiddin stays on as a weakened Prime Minister. The second is for UMNO getting its desire to dissolve the parliament and have elections [which it is favoured to win]. And then third, the least possible outcome, is Anwar seizes power. However, he rattled the cages and showed his hand too early and he got gazumped.”

Wong said the appetite for an election in Malaysia had diminished, even amongst UMNO supporters, because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the last month.

The party also said it would not work with Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan opposition grouping.

Infections in Malaysia, particularly in the eastern state of Sabah, have skyrocketed in the last month after a hard lockdown early on had limited the spread of the disease.

A month ago, on September 27, Malaysia (which has a population of about 31 million people) had recorded 10,769 cases and Australia (25 million people) had 27,016 cases.

By October 26, Malaysia had reported 26,565 cases and Australia had 27,520 cases – underscoring how rapidly the disease can spread once it takes hold.

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