Malaysia: Political instability to persist amid nationwide state of emergency

Malaysia: Political instability to persist amid nationwide state of emergency

- Geopolitical Risk - Intelligence

15-07-2021


Sylyle Martinez, Analyst

In brief

  • Political instability will likely persist amid a fracturing of both ruling and opposition blocs and calls for elections.
  • The calls come after the January suspension of parliament and a prolonged state of emergency due to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Although an election is likely in the near term, addressing the COVID-19 crisis will be a priority, and a vote may not take place for several months.
  • Fragmentations in both the ruling PN coalition and opposition PH bloc, as well as public discontent, will make any election unpredictable, and may trigger a shift in the political landscape.
  • This may present challenges for the formation of any new ruling coalition after elections.  

Background

King Sultan Abdullah declared a nationwide state of emergency on 12 January as part of efforts to combat a surge of COVID-19 infections in the country, effectively suspending parliamentary sessions until the emergency status is lifted on 1 August. The declaration followed Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin losing a parliamentary majority, when three United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) MPs withdrew support for the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition in December and January.

A spokesman for Muhyiddin announced special parliamentary sittings from 26 July to 2 August amid mounting pressure from the public, the opposition, and the king to reconvene parliamentary sessions. The sittings will explore a national recovery plan and proposals for conducting hybrid parliamentary meetings to address the COVID-19 crisis. Muhyiddin has faced mounting pressure, to reconvene parliament and hold elections as soon as the emergency status is lifted, even from allies within the PN coalition, particularly from UMNO.

Prospect of elections

Elections are unlikely to occur immediately, as Muhyiddin is likely to focus on mitigating the impact of COVID-19 over exploring a date for elections. Moreover, it may take some time to reach any agreement over a coronavirus package. Several MPs have voiced concerns that the current set of sessions will not be long enough to allow for debates and votes on possible solutions. Muhyiddin may also be reluctant to agree to imminent elections as he faces a major loss of support from within the PN coalition. A vote may take place in late 2021 or early 2022.

There is a prospect of earlier elections. A withdrawal of support by UMNO would lead to the collapse of the Muhyiddin-led government and trigger elections. However, such a move will be deeply unpopular with the public, who already view UMNO with hostility due to corruption charges associated with the party’s senior members.

In another possible route to elections, opposition MPs could use the parliamentary sessions to request a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin and his ruling coalition government. However, such a move is also highly unlikely given the potential for a major backlash from the public, who have grown frustrated with political wrangling amid a continuation of the coronavirus crisis. 

Rifts in ruling coalition

There has been a fragmentation of support for the ruling PN coalition in recent weeks amid an internal split in UMNO, which, with 38 seats, holds the largest share of seats of any PN coalition party, greater than the 31 seats held by Muhyiddin’s own Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu).

Muhyiddin and the ruling PN coalition government command 113 seats with a thin three-seat majority in the 222-seat parliament. However, shifting party and coalition allegiances, particularly those from UMNO MPs, threaten to upend this.

In March, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi declared the party’s decision to withdraw support for the PN once dates for the elections are announced, primarily due to the party playing a limited role within the coalition. On 7 July, Zahid announced the party’s official withdrawal of support, and called for Muhyiddin’s resignation following a series of internal party meetings.

Internal rifts have grown since UMNO’s unprecedented electoral defeat in 2018. The party is split between the ‘court’ faction, named after multiple corruption cases linked to the group’s prominent figures, including Zahid and former prime minister Najib Razak, and the ‘cabinet’ faction, which comprises the UMNO ministers within Muhyiddin’s cabinet who remain supportive of the PN coalition.

Such rifts will continue to widen as UMNO is unable to carry out internal party elections to decide its leadership for 2021-2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.. This will likely further complicate how the party will move forward ahead of the expected election and may affect future coalition negotiations.

Separately, if the criminal charges against members of the ‘court’ faction are successful, and the affected senior UMNO MPs are found guilty, they will be barred from holding parliamentary seats and will be ineligible to contest the election. This will give Muhyiddin an opportunity to reduce the threat posed by the hostile faction within UMNO and improve his chances of ensuring continued support for his coalition.

Opposition fragmentation

The opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc has also seen increasing disunity, largely over the failure of leader Anwar Ibrahim to effectively challenge the Muhyiddin-led government. Anwar was unable to support a claim he made in September 2020 of having the necessary majority backing needed within Parliament to remove Muhyiddin from power.

In another instance, Anwar supported the passing of the 2021 budget in December 2020, which could have led to an election had the budget bill failed to pass. Anwar decided last-minute to support the bill, despite having initially requested all the MPs within the PH coalition to reject it.

There are concerns about Anwar losing control and influence within the PH. In February and March, three MPs defected from the PH and crossed over to the PN, citing the need for political stability, which allowed Muhyiddin to regain majority support.

Outlook for elections

It is possible that political disputes will persist ahead of an election. The PH could lose further members should Anwar attempt to work with UMNO to obtain political power ahead of elections. In April, local media reported alleged phone calls between Anwar and UMNO’s Zahid, discussing a possible alliance. However, members of the PH have opposed any alliance with UMNO due to its members facing corruption charges.

When elections go ahead, it is unclear whether they will generate a more stable political landscape. Public discontent over government mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, political disputes, and corruption cases may prompt voters to turn away from major parties towards smaller parties and independent politicians. If there is a limited agreement over the steps to recover from the coronavirus crisis, rising public anger may also lead to demonstrations and reduced voter turnout, which could complicate the formation of any coalition with a clear majority.


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