Is Muhyiddin Unstoppable?
July 9, 2021
Since he took power in March 2020, Malaysian prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin has faced several attempts to topple his government by opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim and former premier Mahathir Mohamad. Earlier this year, acting upon the prime minister’s advice, Malaysia’s king agreed to declare a state of emergency due to Covid-19, a decision that suspended Parliament and has allowed the prime minister to rule by decree. With these extraordinary powers, the underestimated politician has survived all political storms. On July 8, Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Muhyiddin’s main ally, announced the party no longer supports him. The declaration has shaken the entire nation and created many uncertainties. Yet, the prime minister is still standing. Is Muhyiddin unstoppable?
The constitutional monarchy has gone through intense political turmoil since Mahathir abruptly resigned in February 2020. King Abdullah Ahmad Shah, who has the power to appoint the prime minister based on who he believes holds the majority in Parliament, designated Muhyiddin Yassin. Perceived as an eternal number two, Muhyiddin—who founded the party Bersatu (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or Malaysian United Indigenous Party) along with Mahathir—seemed to have been underestimated. Until, that is, he was suddenly appointed to the highest post in the country. For many, Muhyiddin, whose premiership has not been validated by a national election, has no popular mandate. The prime minister currently holds a razor-thin majority in Parliament thanks to the support of the former ruling party UMNO. However, this week, UMNO president Zahid unexpectedly announced that his party was no longer supporting the government.
While the disciplined management of the first wave of the pandemic contributed to a rise in popularity for Muhyiddin’s government, inconsistent messaging and seemingly contradictory policies at the national and state levels during the second wave of Covid-19 blew away any goodwill toward Muhyiddin. While the premier is responsible for the mistakes of his government, the leader has inherited the burden of a sclerotic administration. In fact, no prime minister has ever been able to reform the complex machinery of government, and any attempt to do so has been met with strong internal resistance.
Malaysia has only declared a state of emergency once before, following race riots and political violence in 1969. While the prime minister continues to describe the state of emergency as the government’s most effective tool to fight the pandemic, the opposition has highlighted that it is also the government’s most effective tool to stay in power and suppress the opposition’s ability to overturn the majority.
For the past few months, criticism of the government’s Covid-19 policies (e.g., the slow-paced vaccination campaign and the crackdowns on foreign workers, refugees, and undocumented migrants) has grown. The king and other members of the royal families have voiced their concerns over the government’s management of the pandemic. A succession of meetings organized in mid-June between the king and the prime minister, as well as with the leaders of each party, have triggered new scenarios for a possible political change. Following an extraordinary reunion held on June 16, the king and the ruling members of the royal families (the heads of 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states) stated their wish to see Parliament reopen and the state of emergency not to be extended beyond its scheduled end-date of August 1. The following week, Zahid gave a two-week ultimatum for the prime minister to reopen Parliament. On June 30, the king made another statement after meetings with the heads of both chambers of Parliament and their deputies and reiterated his wish to see the legislature reopened before the end of the state of emergency. On July 5, Muhyiddin partially gave into the demands and announced that Parliament will hold a special sitting for five days starting July 26 to discuss the national recovery plan, although the rules for debate remain unclear. Muhyiddin seems to be under siege from all sides, but is he really in danger?
As the pressure mounts, the emerging narrative has been that of a weak government soon to be toppled by royal powers or the plots of the opposition. However, bringing down Muhyiddin might not be so simple.
The King’s Powers Are Limited
Legal experts have disputed the range of options the king has. It is possible that he has reached the limits of his constitutional powers because his actions are subject to the cabinet’s advice. Some even argue that the extraordinary political role and hastily organized meetings the king has taken in the past few weeks are outside his prerogatives. In 1992, six Malay rulers proclaimed a code of ethics defining their roles and preventing royal interference in politics, business, and the media. The agreement, however, has not prevented occasional intense disagreements between the government and the king, as occurred throughout Mahathir’s premiership between 1981 and 2003. That history fuels speculation that the current iteration of royal pressure could also in part reflect a personal feud between the prime minister and the king, as it did then. Also, the king does not have the power to ask the prime minister to resign unless another candidate can prove he holds the majority.
The Government Is Weak, but the Opposition Is Even Weaker
Although they both oppose Muhyiddin, the longstanding divide between former prime minister Mahathir and his once-protégé Anwar Ibrahim continues to hinder the opposition’s coherence. Mahathir’s party is no longer part of the Anwar-led Pakatan Harapan coalition, and its attempt to unite with the youth party Muda and Sabah-based Warisan has yet to materialize. In a big announcement last fall, Anwar indicated he was ready to take over the government. But when he visited the king, he failed to prove he had gathered the numbers required to do so. Unsurprisingly, Anwar made a similar claim when he met with the king last month. Again, Anwar did not get the math right.
Dissent within UMNO Is Hampering the Party’s Strategy
Zahid’s two-week ultimatum met with opposition from fellow UMNO leaders Hishammuddin Hussein and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, respectively. Zahid is in a fragile position as he currently stands trial for his alleged role in a massive corruption scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. His declaration was meant to support the royal position pushing for a quick reopening of Parliament and is a clear attempt to maintain the support of his party members. Hishammuddin was also under scrutiny by members of the party amid rumors that he is attempting to gather the numbers to replace Muhyiddin himself—an allegation he has denied.
The real danger for Muhyiddin was in the possibility of UMNO pulling out of the majority. With 38 of 222 seats in Parliament, the party is a major weight that the prime minister cannot afford to lose. On July 7, in order to neutralize the threat, Muhyiddin coopted Hishamuddin and nominated him as senior minister (a title that has little effect other than prestige). He also designated Ismail Sabri Yakoob, the minister of defense and UMNO leader, as deputy prime minister. But following a four-hour meeting of UMNO’s supreme council, Zahid emerged in the early hours of the next day to announce that his party was withdrawing its support for Muhyiddin’s government, although UMNO leadership reportedly remains divided on its political strategy moving forward.
As of July 8, UMNO members holding ministerial positions had not resigned. UMNO members of Parliament are not following the party line and have reiterated their support to the prime minister, isolating Zahid. In this political mess, and until it is proven that he has lost his majority, Prime Minister Muhyiddin does not have to resign.
Whether or not Parliament resumes as planned on July 26, the crumbling of the majority could eventually either force an election (if the Covid-19 pandemic is sufficiently under control) or trigger the appointment of a new prime minister. For now, UMNO must solve its internal divisions to decide on its next move.
In the current context, the reopening of Parliament is a limited risk to the prime minister’s immediate hold on power. However, Malaysian politics are a fast-moving game, and if the opposition manages to find some cohesion, the dynamics of power could rapidly change. When Parliament does finally meet, the possibility of a no-confidence vote remains thin since the debates over government matters will take precedence over any other business. This rule allows the government to survive despite a precarious equilibrium as it prevents the opposition from successfully tabling a no-confidence motion.
For now, the state of emergency will likely end on August 1, as the king said he will not extend it further. Current Covid-related restrictions are independent of the state of emergency, so the reopening of businesses and lifting of travel bans may take several weeks or months. On June 28, the first phase of the country’s third Movement Control Order was extended indefinitely until the number of cases drops below 4,000 per day.
Muhyiddin is standing by his controversial Covid-19 management policies and seems to have found strength in sailing against the political winds. Although the leader has been underestimated, the emergency powers granted to him along with a bitterly divided opposition have left him firmly in charge. Meanwhile, the political impasse in Kuala Lumpur has further eroded the people’s trust in Malaysia’s institutions and leadership as Malaysians continue to suffer from disastrous economic and social repercussions.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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