Dennis Ignatius: Can Muhyiddin Soldier On?

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A mad, no holds barred scramble for power where anything goes.

The nation watched with bated breath Tuesday as Anwar Ibrahim drove through the gates of Istana Negara for his long-awaited and much anticipated appointment with His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. After insisting for weeks that he finally had the numbers to bring down the government and secure his own appointment as the nation’s ninth prime minister, it was the moment of truth.

At a subsequent press conference, Anwar indicated that he provided the King with “legitimate documents” — including statutory declarations and verification letters by political leaders — to prove that he had the requisite numbers to form a strong and stable government. In the meantime, he urged Malaysians to stay calm and allow the King to consider the matter.

A brief statement from Istana Negara shortly thereafter appeared to put a dampener on Anwar’s claims. The statement by the Comptroller of the Royal Household indicated that Anwar had only informed the King of the number of MPs supporting him without providing His Majesty a list of actual names. In what was seen as a royal rebuke, the Istana statement added that His Majesty had advised Anwar “to follow and respect the legal process as stated in the Federal Constitution.”  All told, it was quite an anti-climax.

Mukhriz Hazim/Malaysiakini

Anwar is, of course, no neophyte; he knows full well the rules of the game. To overthrow a sitting prime minister — never easy even in the best of circumstances — he needs to convincingly demonstrate that he has the backing of a clear majority of MPs. He has to prove his numbers or hold his peace.

Some wonder if his numbers were as solid as he made them out to be given that even his colleagues in Pakatan Harapan appeared sceptical. While it may not be that unusual for Anwar to hold his cards close to his chest given the high stakes involved, not revealing it to the King is puzzling, especially when he is seeking to convince the monarch to remove a sitting prime minister. Will this be the end of Anwar’s quest for power?

In the meantime, Anwar’s gambit appears to have further increased the confusing political situation. The capital has become a beehive of intrigues, shifting allegiances and intense horse- trading as the major players strive to obtain the magic number of seats or at least keep their rivals from acquiring a majority. The situation is very fluid. The ’Sheraton Move’ upended established democratic precedents and political conventions that ensured the proper functioning of the political process. What we have now is a mad, no holds barred scramble for power where anything goes.

Everyone it seems wants to become prime minister. Even Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has now thrown his hat into the ring claiming to be a “neutral” candidate willing to make the “sacrifice” to serve as prime minister.  How nice that there are so many who willing to make the sacrifice to serve in a position they have not earned.

Razaleigh is reportedly working feverishly to set the stage for a non-confidence vote in parliament when it resumes. He seems sure that he can emerge as the compromise candidate if Muhyiddin’s government falls. Many in UMNO, however, are not behind him. It is also uncertain if the opposition will unite behind him. Although he claims to be neutral, he is very much an UMNO man; to support him would be to support UMNO (minus some of its more abhorrent leaders).

To add to the drama, UMNO is now threatening to pull out of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition unless certain demands are met. As the largest component within the coalition, UMNO, of course, chafes at playing second fiddle to PPBM. They are aching to return to power any way they can.

Their demands include the position of deputy prime minister for UMNO president Zahid Hamidi (who faces dozens of charges for corruption and money laundering). Securing the number two spot is a key part of UMNO’s strategy to eventually replace Muhyiddin at the head of the coalition.

Rumblings of discontent within UMNO about the “unequal application of justice against UMNO leaders” also suggests that some of its leaders are hoping to game the system to secure a deal that would see corruption charges against them dropped. Though they deny it, it is a high priority issue at least for those involved. This is bound to alarm opposition leaders, not to mention the public at large.

It is not inconceivable that Anwar’s move to topple the government might in fact have been quietly encouraged by some of these UMNO leaders simply to further weaken (but not topple) Muhyiddin in an effort to squeeze more concessions out of him. If true, Anwar might have unwittingly played into their hands.

Despite all the threats of toppling the government, none of the major parties really want an election. As well, given the deteriorating Covid-19 situation, it is by no means certain that the King himself will agree to one even if the current government falls on a vote of no-confidence.

Given these circumstances, it is possible that other parties might be willing to reach some kind of accommodation with Muhyiddin in order to ensure that UMNO does not become too powerful. The Opposition, for one, may not like the way Muhyiddin took power, but if challenging him paves the way for an UMNO-dominated administration and a free pass for corrupt leaders, it might give them reason for pause.

PAS too, despite its pact with UMNO, is not supportive of efforts to topple the government. PAS has gained so much in such a short time; why throw it all away just to support a party that remains its main competitor for the Malay vote? UMNO’s disenchantment with PAS is already evident.

In the end, Muhyiddin may not necessarily need a majority to stay in office; he just needs to ensure that enough MPs don’t vote against him on key bills. Given the divisions in parliament, it may not be an impossible task. It is common enough in other parliamentary democracies. With no party in parliament able to dominate, with no other realistic contender for the post and with all of them seeking to check and countercheck each other, Muhyiddin might just survive by default.

A barely functioning government propped up by warring political parties who cannot agree on anything might not be the best solution for the country,  especially given the economic downturn and the pandemic, but it might be what we will have to live with for now.