By Hadi Azmi
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin survived a crucial legislative test by a whisker Tuesday as parliament passed his government’s 2021 budget in the final stage of a multi-step process.
A margin of only three votes clinched passage of the spending plan – Muhyiddin’s first piece of legislation as PM that was seen as a vote of confidence in his unelected nine-month-old government.
At the same time, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim failed to demonstrate his claim that close to two-thirds of MPs were supporting his bid to become prime minister, after 111 lawmakers out of 220 voted in favor of the budget bill.
“Members of the House, the result of the votes are as such: For, 111. Against, 108. Absent, one. Therefore, members of the house, the bill will be read for the third time and be passed, right now,” House Speaker Azhar Harun declared to roaring applause from lawmakers on the government side.
Muhyiddin scraped by amid reports that some ruling coalition lawmakers may vote against his 322.5 billion-ringgit (U.S. $78.1 billion) spending bill.
“The stand of the MPs in supporting this budget also proved that they honored the call by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [the king ] for this budget to be passed without any hindrance, especially at a time when the country is dealing with the COVID-19 threat,” Muhyiddin said in a Facebook post on Tuesday night, according to state news agency Bernama.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a key ally in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) ruling coalition, had tangled with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party ever since he was appointed prime minister in March.
A defeat of the proposed budget would have been akin to a vote of no-confidence in his government, and could have led to Muhyiddin’s resignation, analysts had said.
The prime minister nonetheless is clinging to a razor-thin majority in parliament, amid UMNO’s open dissatisfaction in recent months on several issues, including a perception that it was being sidelined.
Tuesday’s was a multi-step victory for Muhyiddin.
His government sailed through the first stage of the budget vote, on Nov. 26.
Opposition leader Anwar had said at the time that his Pakatan Harapan bloc would put up a tougher fight on the parliamentary floor during future stages of debating and voting.
Under Malaysian law, any bill is first debated and voted on at the so-called “policy stage’ before being debated and voted on at the “committee stage.” Then, the bill is brought back before the house for a third and final vote in order to enact it into law.
Anwar said on Tuesday that the budget’s passage should not be seen as proof of confidence in the government.
“The narrow passing of this bill in Parliament will do little to inspire confidence in the PN government. It will simply render it further susceptible to self-interests of these politicians at the expense of the people,” Anwar said in a statement.
“The budget is fundamentally flawed in ways that have been extensively debated in Parliament. The Budget reflects the narrow interests of PN government’s own political survival rather than the actual needs and welfare of the rakyat [people].”
Pakatan wanted the budget bill amended to increase social protections for vulnerable people until the end of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 budget earmarks 17 billion ringgit ($4.1 billion) to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming year.
UMNO members as well as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had also criticized a budget provision, which they described as an inordinately large allocation for a government information agency known as the Special Affairs Department (JASA).
On the eve of the final budget vote, veteran UMNO lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Mahathir held a joint press conference during which they hinted about a possible collapse of Muhyiddin’s government on Tuesday.
Razaleigh announced that he would not be participating in the budgetary vote. According to him, an unelected government didn’t have the legitimacy to present a budget.
Muhyiddin was appointed Prime Minister by the king after the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed over infighting in February. Mahathir had joined Anwar’s Pakatan, and had been named prime minister after a stunning victory in the May 2018 elections that UMNO lost.
On Monday, Razaleigh said he was sharing a platform with Mahathir because the two politicians had agreed that the country needed an elected PM.
“We want a legitimate government because right now we don’t have a legitimate government and we don’t have a legitimate prime minister,” Razaleigh said.
True to his word, Razaleigh didn’t vote on the budget, but analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar said the rest of UMNO voted as a bloc to pass the spending bill.
“The margin of approval was small. They voted as a bloc despite earlier uncertainties on votes from UMNO,” the analyst from the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur told BenarNews.
“However, the support suggests that the PN coalition is walking on a tightrope and the government is not so stable.”
Mokhtar added that Muhyiddin may well hold on to power until the next general election, provided he continued to accommodate UMNO’s demands.
The prime minister had said late last month that a general election would be held once the pandemic ends.
“We return the mandate to the people and let the people decide which government they want,” he said.
UMNO, too, recently said it wanted a snap election once COVID-19 was under control.