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Malaysia’s Political Crisis Deepens – Analysis

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With Muhyiddin gone, number counting begins in earnest, king calls for an era of “new politics” 

Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation as Malaysian prime minister has plunged the country into a deeper political crisis. When he quit, his 73-member cabinet was automatically dissolved. Day-to-day government is now run directly by the civil service. 

Malaysia now has a caretaker government with daily Covid-19 cases around the 20,000 mark and rising at a weekly rate of 11 percent, and with 34.6 percent of the population having received both jabs. The nation faces a public health crisis, with hospital resources, particularly in the Klang Valley, stretched to the limit. Long-term restrictions have crippled hundreds of thousands of businesses, leaving many families so destitute, at the mercy of neighbors’ assistance, that they are waving white flags out their windows. 

Even though the official unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, unemployment is much higher in many vulnerable sections of the workforce. GDP has plunged by 5.6 percent, a figure not seen since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. 

In the meantime, the country’s politicians have put aside all concern about the wellbeing of the country to fight for power. By all reports, a situation appears where no one bloc is able to muster a convincing majority. The long-besieged Perikatan Nasional (PN) government finally collapsed after 17 months, after taking power from the elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) government through the so-called Sheraton putsch in February last year, in which a small group of Malay supremacists attempted to install a Malay-superiority government but failed when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad backed away and resigned. 

Its not clear who will succeed Muhyiddin. There is no clear frontrunner amid widespread speculation on how party blocs may throw their support. 

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Shah, accepted Muhyiddin’s resignation after reportedly wanting it over the past week or so. The palace initiated an unprecedented  meeting of major political party leaders. It was reported that the king insisted all parties agree to leave behind the politics of old and work together to address the Covid-19 and economic crises. 

In addition, the speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, or lower house, Azhar Azizan Harun, on direction from the palace, requested all MPs to submit their choice of prime minister in writing within 24 hours. However, some MPs have criticized the move as a secret ballot lacks transparency and opens the process to vote-buying. 

This makes it appear the king is not strictly acting according to convention or the constitution. He is playing a wider role. Any long-time observer of Malaysian politics has seen that the sultans and king have often played a serious consultative role over and above their strict constitutional duties. In some states, Sultans often have pre-executive council meetings with their excos, or state ministers, and give their opinions. Thus, Westminster politics Malaysian style empowers the king and sultans with pervasive influence, not strictly written down in the constitution.

There are a number of scenarios about what could happen next.  The king is expected to seek to appoint a prime minister that he is satisfied can command a majority in the Dewan Rakyat. Currently with two seats vacant in the 222-member lower house, a simple majority  is 111.

The first scenario is Muhyiddin’s replacement by Ismail Sabri Yaacob of the United Malays National Organization, recently appointed deputy prime minister under Muhyiddin. This is probably unlikely due to Sabri’s bitter rivalry with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, which looks beyond reconciliation. Without something unforeseen, like Pakatan Harapan falling behind Sabri, which would mean working with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu once again, is a very remote possibility.

The second option would be an UMNO-led coalition. With Zahid facing graft charges in court, he is out of the running as a potential prime minister. Therefore, a compromise nomination for prime minister would be necessary. The strongest candidate would be Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a respected UMNO elder who would take the position until the next election. Razaleigh might be able to mend fences within UMNO and for that reason would be a good choice. He is also popular in the Malay heartlands and can talk to some of the more progressive people. Another choice would be Senior Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, until August 16 the foreign minister. He may garner supporters from the Zahid faction and hold most of Bersatu together. 

The third option is a return of the Pakatan Harapan government led by Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar currently has 105 MPs. He would have to find support from the UMNO MPs led by Zahid. However, Zahid at the UMNO party congress said he would never work with Anwar, even though it has been reported that negotiations have been going on. 

Other options would be Sarawak’s GPS or a portion of Bersatu going behind Anwar. However, GPS said they would never cooperate with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and are bitter rivals with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party at the state level. This would be hard to think of, unless Pakatan Harapan takes up a compromise candidate like Shafie Apdal from Sabah, and got full Warisan support. Warisan are already hinting about supporting Anwar. 

If no one bloc can convince the king of having an overall majority, then a minority government, with non-aligned support, or the opposition agreeing not to make a vote of no confidence in the government may be able to govern until the next election. This would open the door for Muhyiddin to continue to head a minority government. 

A minority government is probably the most likely possibility, as calling a general election would be very risky due to the current pandemic. The Electoral Commission has informed the palace that 484 state constituencies  of 613 are Covid-19 red areas. It is generally believed the king is not in favor of an election. 

However, it was suggested by a former Electoral Commission chief, Abdul Aziz Mohd. Yusof, that campaigning for a general election could be conducted online. A minority government could continue until conditions are better for a general election, near the end of this year, or early next year. 

Another option, which the king and fellow rulers reportedly support is a national unity government in some form or other. The king could use his position as a mediator to encourage or broker a proposal from the major political parties to form such as government. The onus would be on the parties to select a prime ministerial candidate and build a multi-party cabinet behind him. Here, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has been mentioned by many pundits as a good candidate. 

The major stumbling block to seeing this happen is the year or more of bitter political rivalries, and the long odds of seeing all parties rise above this. PAS is on public record that it would never work with the DAP, it would be difficult to see PKR work with Bersatu because of the group headed Azmin Ali, a bitter enemy of Anwar. However, the king’s persuasive powers can’t be underestimated, if he can layout a strong case. 

Malaysia is now entering unchartered political, and even constitutional territory. 

Voters within the Malay heartland may favor an UMNO-led government, while the majority of urban voters want to see an Anwar-led Pakatan Harapan one, believing this is the only just and fair outcome. However, once an election is concluded and MPs sit in the Dewan Rakyat, it is the MPs who choose any government, not popular sentiment from the people. The king is looking at which MP can, according to his belief, muster a majority of member support within the parliament. 

The mandate for any successor will have to focus on managing the pandemic, with case numbers expected to start falling very soon due to progress in vaccinations, and rescuing the economy, which is quickly running into deep recession. Therefore, the issue is not who will form the next government, rather how the new government will manage the crises. 

We will know over the next few days whether Malaysia’s political leaders have heeded the king’s request. 

Originally published in the Asia Sentinel

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here

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Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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