Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin insisted today that he retains the support of a majority of lawmakers, and will prove it by subjecting himself to a parliamentary motion of confidence next month.
In a nationally televised address, Muhyiddin said he would remain prime minister, but will test his majority in parliament when it next sits in September. He added that Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, accepted this decision during an audience earlier in the day.
“I have informed the king that I have received a number of declarations from lawmakers that convinced me that I still have the confidence of the majority of lawmakers at this time,” Muhyiddin said, according to Reuters. “His Majesty, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has accepted my suggestion to determine my legitimacy in parliament. As such, the administration of the current government will continue.”
Muhyiddin came to power in March of last year, after helping precipitate the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which won power at the general election of May 2018.
Since then, Muhyiddin and his party Bersatu have governed in a state of near-permanent emergency – and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Commanding just a slim majority in parliament, he has been forced to fend off attacks from the opposition camp and, increasingly, from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the most powerful component of his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
The emergency intensified last week, along with the chorus for Muhyiddin’s resignation, after the prime minister refused to allow parliament to debate the state of emergency imposed in January to help the government fight COVID-19. In June, the king explicitly stated that parliament, suspended by the emergency order, should reconvene urgently to debate the emergency powers. Last week, he issued a rare admonition of Muhyiddin for revoking the emergency without his approval, an act that the palace said ran counter to the Malaysian constitution.
On Monday, Muhyiddin shut down parliament on the grounds of COVID-19 risk, deploying riot police to keep opposition lawmakers out of the legislative building. The move prompted dozens of opposition MPs, including People’s Justice Party chief Anwar Ibrahim and his erstwhile nemesis, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, to redouble their demands for Muhyiddin’s resignation.
Muhyiddin’s many critics claim that he has used COVID-19 and the state of emergency to strengthen his uncertain political position. The claim seems hard to downplay given that Muhyiddin’s emergency powers have done little to stem a sharp spike in the number of COVID-19 cases being recorded in Malaysia, which now has the highest per capita infection rate in Southeast Asia. In recent months, the Malaysian leader has also been accused of insolence toward the king, who has called repeatedly for Muhyiddin to reconvene parliament.
Today, Muhyiddin defended his stance and denied flouting the monarch’s constitutional authority. “I was accused of treason, when all I did was to protect the federal constitution and defend the royal institution,” the prime minister said. “I will not betray my principles and will continue defending the constitution.”
By agreeing to a motion of confidence – the first in Malaysia’s history – Muhyiddin has purchased himself a one-month reprieve to gin up the numbers to prolong his tenuous term in office.
Indeed, the political wheeling and dealing has already begun. On Tuesday, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that the party had retracted its support for Muhyiddin and his Perikatan Nasional government, the second time that it has done so in as many months. According to one report, at least 11 UMNO parliamentarians support this move, which would cost Muhyiddin his governing coalition. Other parties on all sides of Malaysia’s multi-focal politics are also deep in deal-making, seeking the numbers to form the next government; Philip Golingai of The Star has published a rundown of some of the potential configurations that could emerge in the weeks to come.
A lot can happen in a month, however, and it is unlikely that Muhyiddin would place his political fate in parliament’s hands if he did not have at least a decent degree of confidence he could survive a vote. As Bridget Welsh, a close observer of Malaysian politics, noted on Twitter, “How much time Muhyiddin has bought is not clear but he is fighting to stay on.”