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Can Malaysia’s Muhyiddin see out the year as PM, with Mahathir and Umno circling?

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The six-week parliament session that ended on Thursday had been billed as Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s first big test. The Pakatan Harapan alliance that was turfed out in February by the 73-year-old’s political coup had vowed to avenge their betrayal during the sitting, through a no-confidence motion against the new Perikatan National government.

In the end, the removal of the incumbent Pakatan Harapan parliamentary speaker early in the marathon legislative session meant the motion never saw the light of day, and Muhyiddin appears to have survived his first major challenge as the country’s eighth prime minister – albeit by the skin of his teeth.

The new government survived several votes with the tiniest of margins, a vivid display that this administration is far from stable.

Analysts say all eyes are on the clock, particularly with the national budget due in November, to see just how long he and Perikatan Nasional will last in the corridors of power – with politicians and grass roots party workers from all factions keeping a close watch to ascertain where to lend support.

 “It was expected that pressure would force Muhyiddin to dissolve parliament ahead of term,” said political scientist Awang Azman Awang Pawi of University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies.

Six months into the job, the veteran politician is facing obstacles from all angles, even within the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia group he leads. Bersatu’s Malay nationalist allies from the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) and the hardline Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) are happy to prop up Muhyiddin for now – but analysts say they are waiting for an election to be called so they can seize the chance to govern on their own. Bersatu and these groups are odd bedfellows, having been on opposing sides in the 2018 elections, when Umno was turfed out of power after having ruled since Malaysia gained independence in 1957. Muhyiddin’s group is made up primarily of defectors from Umno.

To compound matters, the sprightly Mahathir Mohamad, who was kicked out of the prime minister’s office in the February coup, appears undaunted by the passage of time – he turned 95 in July – or the heartache of having his second stint as premier unceremoniously cut short.

His new party, Pejuang Tanah Air (Homeland Fighters), is seeking to make an impression in the next election, should it be called soon.

In its first test on Saturday, a candidate backed by Perjuang suffered a heavy defeat against an Umno candidate in a by-election for the state assembly seat of Slim in Perak.

Bridget Welsh, a veteran Malaysian politics observer, wrote on Twitter that a low turn out of 68 per cent of voters coupled with voter disengagement among non-Malays gave Umno an advantage in the by-election.

Attention will now turn to state-wide elections in Sabah on September 26.

That vote was triggered after the state chief minister there, Shafie Apdal, in July elected to dissolve the state assembly ahead of a political coup against him – like the one that elevated Muhyiddin to power – by Umno-linked political players.

Muhyiddin has not found it easy to govern hand in hand with Umno, which counts in its ranks the scandal-tainted former prime minister Najib Razak and many others Bersatu once vowed to wipe out from politics. Analysts say the former ruling party, keen to reclaim federal power, will remain a threat to Muhyiddin’s control.

“We can see his Umno critics are those who have no positions, while the Umno ministers in his cabinet have been suspiciously quiet,” said academic and analyst Azmil Tayeb.

However, Umno’s jockeying for primacy may not be as effective as Muhyiddin’s patronage: in recent months, the prime minister has drawn flak for handing out choice corporate jobs to his allies to keep them onside, crucial given the narrow two-seat majority he has in parliament.

“Umno needs to convince the other parties that it will be a better patron than Muhyiddin and his government in order to get support for its bid for an early election. It’s difficult for Umno to do so as it is currently out of power,” Azmil said.

In June, Umno turned down a formal alliance with Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional, while its leader Zahid Hamidi has said the choice of premier will only be made after the election – raising questions as to whether Muhyiddin, who served as deputy prime minister under Najib, will last the year.

The main worry for political observers is that the current government’s longevity will be jeopardised not just by the external threat posed by Pakatan Harapan and Mahathir’s new outfit, but also by cannibalisation between Bersatu and Umno. In such a scenario, PAS – whose leaders hope for a wider, stricter adoption of sharia law in the multiracial country – may turn out to be the biggest winner of the internecine struggles.

“PAS will just side with the ultimate winner,” Azmil said. “This means that Muhyiddin must now sow dissent within Umno, as the latter has a clear electoral advantage.”

However, analyst Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University believes that if Muhyiddin plays his cards right, he could “definitely last till 2021 if he wants it”, pointing out that opposition stalwart Anthony Loke had recently called for a “ceasefire deal” between the opposition and the government, conditional upon the prime minister setting up parliamentary select committees to allow checks and balances from opposition lawmakers.

“Even if detractors want to force a collapse of Muhyiddin’s government by working with Mahathir’s gang for an ambush, Muhyiddin can certainly find its rescue from Pakatan Harapan through a ‘confidence and safety agreement’.”

If Muhyiddin fails to command a majority of the lower house or is unable to pass key government bills, he will find himself in a bind on what to do next.

The next general elections are slated for 2023, and only Muhyiddin has the power to ask Malaysia’s king to dissolve parliament ahead of schedule – but doing so will depend, according to Awang Azman of University Malaya, on whether Bersatu faces a large exodus of members to Pejuang or even back to Umno.

Waiting to call the polls would also limit elder statesman Mahathir’s chances of being actively involved in politics.

Meanwhile, a Pakatan Harapan source said the opposition was divided on whether it should serve out its term or claw its way back to power.

“Some opposition MPs are desperate to get back to power at all costs. Some are less inclined. As such the default mode is to be an effective opposition. If the government’s shaky coalition collapses, then the current opposition will assess their willingness to form a government at all costs,” said the source, a two-term MP.

Malaysia’s parliament is currently made up of its strongest opposition and weakest government in history – with 49 per cent and 51 per cent of seats, respectively – giving Pakatan Harapan a strong platform to force reforms and call for change, including pushing for policies such as equal constituency funding.

However, the country’s opposition is currently fragmented because “they have not taken this pragmatic position”, said Wong from Sunway University. “If opposition leaders and supporters still have a pipe dream of a counter-coup, then the opposition deserves a devastating defeat like a gambler who insists on betting everything when her luck is bad”.

Meanwhile, the nation continues to contend with the economic consequences of a national lockdown imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19, which saw unemployment skyrocket and the economy slump by 17.1 per cent in the second quarter – the worst slump since the Asian financial crisis.

Although Muhyiddin might be able to hold on to power and stay the course, said analyst Azmil, the nation’s opposition could now move to work “more cohesively” as the political coup saw “untrusted” elements eject themselves from the coalition.

“Now, Pakatan Harapan can fully focus on programme-based politics, instead of getting mired in toxic ethno-religious issues,” he said.