Two developments over the weekend seemed to confirm that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin remains vulnerable, not so much from the opposition, but from his own coalition allies. The status of the ruling coalition remains shaky, which sustains the chances of early elections.
Muhyiddin was supposed to officially launch his ruling National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, or PN) coalition on Saturday, 29 August. But the event was called off at the last minute, on Friday evening, after the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) informed the registrar of political parties that it would not be joining the coalition, thus following in the footsteps of its long-time partner the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Other regional parties also apparently did not plan to show up. MIC is a marginal party but its membership would have helped to at least broaden the ethnic base of PN. MIC said that it would, together with UMNO, still support the prime minister’s government.
But this is scant consolation for Muhyiddin. UMNO had announced it would stay out of the coalition as early as last month, so that it could focus on its own alliance, the National Concord, with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Together, the two parties, with their 57 seats, comprise exactly one half of the ruling coalition and have 26% of all parliamentary seats. Until today, therefore, PN remains an unofficial coalition, six months after Muhyiddin took over as prime minister, and there are no signs that he is closer to consolidation.
UMNO and PAS will continue to prop up Muhyiddin, if only to foil former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s attempts at an immediate no-confidence vote. However, they will prefer to formally stay apart from PN because come elections, they can compete for seats held by Muhyiddin’s own Malaysia United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), which has 31 seats, or 14% of parliament. UMNO and PAS recognize early elections work for them at least in terms of this inter party dynamic because the longer Muhyiddin is in office, the greater his chances of consolidating control.
Lessons from Slim
If Muhyiddin needed further proof of his vulnerability, it was in the week’s state assembly by-elections in the Slim constituency in Perak state. UMNO’s candidate won the elections in a relatively inconsequential race, as expected soundly defeating Mahathir’s new party, Fighters of the Nation (Pejuang). Slim has been a long-time stronghold of the National Front (BN) — the coalition that had ruled Malaysia for decades and which included MIC.
But notably, UMNO fielded a candidate using its old BN banner. Much of the grassroots campaigning was also done by UMNO and PAS. The general sense, therefore, is that Bersatu was more of an observer and would not have figured strongly in such a race; this perception will, reasonably, be extrapolated to the national level. Bersatu will try to attract non-Malays to the party to compensate for UMNO’s hesitation, but as MIC had showed, its options there are similarly limited.
For Mahathir’s Pejuang, the results were also mixed. UMNO’s dominance and unwillingness to join PN may help convince eventually convince Bersatu members of their shaky future in the coalition, making them more vulnerable to Mahathir’s entreaties. At the same time, however, Pejuang did badly with ethnic Chinese and Indian voters, even though UMNO and BN were Malay-centric parties. This highlights how the opposition’s electoral chances have been compromised by the fight between erstwhile allies Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, and that only a combination of the two have a chance of beating PN.