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Royal consent to block polls signals Malaysia PM Muhyiddin safe until Covid-19 curbed

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin continues to be kept on his toes by Umno, which had previously threatened to withhold its support.PHOTO: BERNAMA

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his slim-majority government are back on safe ground for now, after Malaysia's King on Wednesday (Nov 18) consented to an emergency declaration that effectively postponed a by-election, amid the country's worst wave of coronavirus infections.

Analysts and political insiders see the King's agreement to delay the Dec 5 vote for the little-known Sabah coastal town of Batu Sapi in easternmost Malaysia as a clear signal from Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah that snap national polls will not happen until the pandemic is subdued.

This comes as doubt continues to fester over whether Tan Sri Muhyiddin can pass next year's budget, with a vote to be taken on Nov 26. Based on the last parliamentary vote in August, his Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact currently has 112 MPs against the opposition's 108. The remaining two seats in Parliament are vacant after two lawmakers recently died.

"The King's decision means Muhyiddin will likely be safe for now, as recent attempts to form an alternative government have failed. But hostilities within the ruling coalition have paused rather than ceased, and are set to resume after the budget vote or possibly even before," Eurasia Group's Asia director Peter Mumford told The Straits Times.

Sultan Abdullah has advised all lawmakers to approve the budget in the interests of the country, and to ensure sufficient funding for the ongoing fight against the coronavirus and its economic fallout.

Still, Mr Muhyiddin continues to be kept on his toes by Umno, the largest party in his PN pact, which had previously threatened to withhold its support.

On Thursday, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called for the Muhyiddin administration to "make it a priority to bring a motion of confidence" to the floor.

The Umno chief added that the mandate "should be returned to the public as soon as possible" at the ballot box, after making thinly veiled criticisms of Mr Muhyiddin and his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's lack of sincerity in cooperating with their allies.

Observers say Zahid's move is aimed at ensuring his own survival and primacy within Umno, itself riven by factions aligned for and against Mr Muhyiddin.

"He is suggesting the government may not have the numbers. An early general election is the best case for Umno. Even if it is not possible, he is sending a message to the party that he will not back down," BowerGroupAsia political risk consultant Adib Zalkapli told ST.

Zahid and his supporters are aggrieved at being sidelined from positions of power and decision-making within the government.

The former deputy premier had been willing to team up with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government to replace PN, but the move fizzled out in October after Umno and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), part of Datuk Seri Anwar's Pakatan Harapan coalition, refused to work with each other.

Zahid is facing 87 charges of graft, although court hearings are delayed indefinitely, with most of the country under a partial lockdown. Umno party polls are also due next year, but its top leadership council can opt to delay it for 18 months.

ST reported last week that health officials have advised the government that a national vote may not be possible until late-2021 due to the severity of the new Covid-19 wave. However, reports of vaccines entering late-stage trials have given some hope that normalcy can return earlier next year.

Speculation has swirled that Mr Anwar and Zahid were still signing up lawmakers this week to eventually topple the Muhyiddin administration, whether or not the budget passes.

A ruling pact official privy to discussions between Mr Muhyiddin and Zahid told ST "the only source of political uncertainty now is whether Umno is committed to the existing government".

"Umno's leadership is split into several camps and they will need to eventually decide if they are with Zahid or not," he said.