Malaysia’s Embattled Premier Retains Support of Key Ally

Malaysia’s biggest ruling party said it would continue to support the government, providing a reprieve for Prime Minister Muhyiddin amid calls for him to step down after a failed bid for emergency rule.

The United Malays National Organisation will maintain its decision to not work with Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party or the Democratic Action Party, said UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in a statement after a Monday meeting that ended past midnight.

The meeting was held a day after the king denied Muhyiddin’s request to put the country under emergency law to fight the pandemic. The measure would have allowed Muhyiddin to suspend parliament, where the premier had previously pushed contentious bills through despite his razor-thin majority.

​UMNO’s decision to maintain support may not go down well with all its leaders. In a Facebook post before Monday’s meeting, UMNO supreme council leader Puad Zarkashi had urged Muhyiddin to step down. “It’s apparent that the prime minister’s advice was not accepted,” Puad said. “Where is his credibility as prime minister.”

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak said he proposed at the meeting that the party push for a date for a general election once the pandemic was brought under control. Another option was to negotiate with other parties, including Anwar’s, if UMNO was unhappy with how the government was treating them, Najib wrote in a Facebook post.

“I’m also of the opinion that the eighth prime minister made the wrong move in requesting for an emergency in his efforts to remain in power,” he wrote.

Budget 2021

Muhyiddin is under pressure to shore up support as he prepares for a crucial leadership test next month. The government is set to present its 2021 budget in parliament on Nov. 6, and failing to pass that would count as losing a no-confidence vote. The first national budget since the pandemic hit will focus on the people’s well-being, business continuity and economic resilience, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz said on Tuesday.

“I am confident that Budget 2021 will not be politicised and will have the full support of parliament for the common good,” he said in a televised speech. “I hope the economic recovery can be achieved by next year.”

Malaysia’s economy contracted 17.1% in the second quarter, the most since the Asian financial crisis more than two decades ago.

The uncertainty is weighing on the nation’s financial markets. Malaysia’s ringgit has weakened in October, lagging Asian peers which have all risen on the back of a weak dollar. Global funds have pulled a net $115 million from local shares this month, with the benchmark equity index headed for its third monthly decline.

Olive Branch

Opposition party DAP, which has the most number of seats in parliament, has offered Muhyiddin a way out. Its leaders proposed that all parties agree to hold off elections until 2023, and to work together in drafting and approving parliament bills, including the budget, organizing secretary Anthony Loke said in a statement late Sunday.

DAP’s offer comes with strings attached. Party leader Liew Chin Tong suggested that the premier should ask two senior cabinet members -- Trade Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali being one of them -- to resign. The senator also called for equal treatment for backbenchers in terms of resources and access to provide policy inputs.

Malaysia’s political drama has seen various factions jockey for power after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly stepped down in February. Muhyiddin emerged as the head of an unwieldy bloc with a majority of only a few lawmakers, prompting speculation about the likely collapse of the government.

Less than a week ago UMNO announced a “political ceasefire” and expressed support for the government. It had earlier threatened to pull out amid rumblings of discontent over the apparent power imbalance in the government. UMNO holds fewer posts in the cabinet compared to Muhyiddin’s party, despite being the biggest party in the ruling bloc.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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