September 23, 2020


MALAYSIA: Parsing Anwar’s claim that he has the numbers to become PM

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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In a surprise, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced midday today in Kuala Lumpur that he had the numbers to become prime minister and that he was seeking an audience with the Malaysian king. However, Anwar did not provide any details of his supposedly new majority, especially how many MPs were defecting from the ruling coalition of the National Alliance (PN) and from which party they would be coming. He would only divulge the details after his meeting with the king. The signals are ambiguous, which means it will take at least a few more days to establish whether Anwar has the numbers to back up his claim.

He described his new majority as strong, convincing, and formidable, implying that it would be substantially better than the 113-109 edge held by PN over the opposition in the 222-seat parliament. There are only three parties in PN that can give any prospective opposition government the majority that Anwar describes in one go: the United Malays National Organization (UMNO, 39 seats), Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS, 18 seats), and the United Bumiputera Heritage Party (PBB, 13 seats), which is part of the Sarawak Parties Coalition (GPS).

PAS should be the first to be discounted. The party is unacceptable to Anwar’s allies in the Democratic Action Party (DAP), given the run-in between the two in 2015 over the implementation of Islamic penal law, which triggered the collapse of the opposition. Therefore, Anwar’s newfound support could be coming from a combination of GPS and UMNO MPs. The GPS chair described Anwar as “weird” today, saying his coalition remained allied with Muhyiddin and PN. UMNO members in the cabinet also derided Anwar’s move as a “gimmick” and described him as playing a game. But GPS and its constituent parties are highly transactional, while UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that he had been “told that many UMNO and BN MPs have voiced their support” for Anwar.

The likeliest possibility, therefore, is that these two parties are experiencing internal splits, with members willing to go to Anwar and his new coalition. Anwar would probably need 25 – 30 new members to not only have a convincing majority, including making up for the five or so MPs from his coalition that are allied with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The palace this afternoon confirmed that Anwar did have a scheduled audience with the king, but that it had to be postponed because he was unwell and in hospital. Anwar may have therefore announced his plan to put pressure on the monarch to push through with the meeting, maybe to reassure those jumping ship to his side that he can eventually gain power. Given the volatile nature of political alliances in Malaysia, even within the established parties, it is possible that Anwar’s coalition may still come undone, after all.

There will be skepticism of Anwar’s claims until he fully shows his hand, because on 16 September 2008, also as an opposition MP, he similarly claimed to have enough MPs to topple the government. He blamed the parliament speaker for failing to calendar a no-confidence vote, which caused the MPs who had planned to break from the government to abandon him. Whether he really had the numbers has never been established. Some UMNO cabinet members called today’s announcement “another 16 September”.