Malaysia’s recently-appointed Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for his attempts to concentrate power by undermining his political allies. Prime Minister Yassin is leading a coalition of several parties and has been accused of making a power grab by sidelining former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, once his political ally, from the current governing setup.
In February, the Pakatan Harapan coalition—which Mahathir led to victory in the 2018 general election—collapsed following a row with Muhyiddin’s faction in the coalition. Muhyiddin then joined forces with other political parties to muster enough support to form the current government.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin is now focused on political survival, but this is likely to undermine his administration’s ability to improve transparency and prioritize good governance. Muhyiddin’s attempt to sideline Mahathir and other prominent leaders from the ruling coalition appears to have brought on a new political crisis in the country that cannot be settled without a fresh election.
However, the prospect of a snap election poses political risk for a weak government. This risk is exponentially greater in the case of Muhyiddin, as he has made many political enemies.
A fierce power struggle deepens in Malaysia
Muhyiddin’s efforts to shore up his government have provoked mixed reactions. In mid-July, Muhyiddin’s coalition won enough votes to remove the speaker of the lower house, increasing their power in the legislature. The vote was arguably the first real test of the political support base that catapulted Muhyiddin to the prime minister’s office.
But in a push to consolidate power, Muhyiddin has also appointed politicians from his former party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to his cabinet.
To ensure his government’s political survival, the new prime minister needs the support of UMNO, despite the fact that the party expelled him four years ago. “Now, with no more cabinet roles to dole out, Muhyiddin must turn to government agencies to appease his coalition partners in PAS [the Malaysian Islamic Party] or UMNO, especially as the latter party has far more seats than his Bersatu party does in Parliament and is reliant on their support,” Terence Gomez, a professor of political economy at the University of Malaya, told the South China Morning Post.
There is even the possibility of Muhyiddin returning to UMNO or making a political deal with the party to win their support. For Muhyiddin, any such move would prove risky from an electoral perspective and could cost him the support of his coalition partners and their voters if another election is held in the near future. Muhyiddin’s rise to power has already angered many voters, who see the new administration as a “backdoor government.”
Meanwhile, Muhyiddin’s political enemies are making plans to ensure that his government fails. Mahathir has not given up efforts to take down the current government and has sought to challenge Muhyiddin through a no-confidence motion in Parliament, claiming that Muhyiddin doesn’t have majority support. “The new prime minister claims that he has the majority, but he’s so worried about his majority that parliament has not been allowed to sit,” Mahathir recently told CNBC.
For now, the effort to dislodge Muhyiddin’s government may have failed but there may still be further attempts to come.
Can another election solve Muhyiddin’s political woes?
According to a Financial Times report, Muhyiddin is considering a snap election possibly by early next year to shore up his shaky position in the Parliament and prevent political enemies from undermining his government. So far, the opposition parties have struggled to find common ground and are unable to agree on who would become prime minister if they can remove Muhyiddin’s government. This lack of unity may give the prime minister enough time to strengthen his political support base before calling a snap election.
If the prime minister doesn’t hold an election and get a clear mandate from voters, his government will remain beholden to coalition partners, undermining his authority to govern effectively and implement key economic reforms. For instance, Muhyiddin’s government has been politicizing appointments of government-linked companies in a desperate attempt to retain power and appease coalition partners. The policy could have serious impacts for an economy already damaged by COVID-19.
Currently, Muhyiddin’s weak government cannot expect to implement major institutional reforms or pass laws without making compromises with other political parties. Muhyiddin recently said that his government would work to implement comprehensive anti-corruption reforms.
However, last month, prosecutors withdrew corruption and money laundering charges against Musa Aman, former chief minister of the state of Sabah, raising doubts about the current government’s ability to fighting corruption. Going forward, opposition parties will likely see every bill and reform agenda as a challenge.
But Muhyiddin’s dilemma regarding an election is still bigger than the political problems currently facing his government. With political heavyweights trying to end Muhyiddin’s career, he cannot be sure whether a new election would give him enough support to form a new government; a snap election could also result in a hung Parliament, making it virtually impossible for Muhyiddin to return to the top spot.
If Muhyiddin chooses to continue with the current government, the threat of a no confidence vote will only persist. His government’s agenda will continue to be dictated by coalition partners and Muhyiddin will have to make still more political compromises. On the other hand, opposition parties will only continue to improve their political and electoral base as they search for common ground. If Muhyiddin wants to opt for an election, he will have to do it soon.
In any case, unless Muhyiddin forms an inclusive government with the support of all major political parties and leaders, Malaysia’s politics will remain unstable. Without a clear political accord, it is unclear how the country will move forward. As things stand, Malaysia’s political soap opera is here to stay