Since March, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s precarious stance within his own ruling National Alliance (PN) has been generating constant speculation as to when — not if — early elections could be held. Two factors now appear to be making the timing of a vote uncertain, which in turn may allow Muhyiddin to survive beyond the next six to nine months and expands the window for a vote all the way to 2022, assuming opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also fails to flip MPs from the majority.
The first is the apprehension that an election could accelerate local transmission of Covid-19. This perception is the result of the spike in infections after the September by-elections in Sabah, which resulted in movement restrictions in several states in October. In fact, Muhyiddin on Saturday said that he would call elections once “Covid-19 is over,” but without specifying the conditions for such a determination. Although it is politically expedient for him to make this statement, there is enough public support for an election delay until the health crisis clears up. This could simply mean a situation where local transmission has been absent for several months, as in Thailand or Vietnam, which would allow an election to be still held by the second half of 2021, assuming Malaysia is able to bring local transmissions under control in the next few months. Alternatively, and more likely, he could be referring to a more structural reduction in risk with the distribution of a vaccine and the development of broader immunity, which would in turn mean no elections until 2022.
The second is the general weaknesses of factions within both the ruling coalition and the opposition, which may make them reluctant to push for a vote as it could upend their strategies of keeping Muhyiddin unbalanced while they try to consolidate their respective positions. For instance, last week, the opposition Alliance of Hope (PH) did not support a motion for a vote count on the approval of the 2021 budget policy, which would have forced the speaker to tabulate the actual votes instead of a voice vote as was done. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim justified it by saying that he did not want the opposition to be blamed for possible delays in civil servants’ wages, especially since the prime minister had consulted with the minority before tabling the budget. However, the more likely reason is that forcing a vote count could have clarified Muhyiddin’s majority and derailed any further efforts by Anwar to poach a swing bloc from PN. To a lesser extent, attempting to cause the government’s collapse would also have been seen as going against the Malaysian king’s earlier statement that he would prefer that politicians support the budget to protect the people’s well-being and enhance the economy’s recovery.
Muhyiddin’s own coalition partner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is facing the same dilemma as Anwar. It only has 39 (17%) of the seats in parliament, and there is a significant risk that it would not win back enough seats to return to the 88 (40%) that it had after the 2013 general elections. For UMNO, therefore, an unsteady Muhyiddin from whom it may be able to extract political concessions may be better for it near term, while weighing its potential alliances and strategy for the next general elections. Finally, for the prime minister, any delay gives him more time to consolidate his control over an unwieldy coalition, and to dispense largesse that improves his chances of retaining control. For now, therefore, interests and expectations may be aligning in favor of Muhyiddin avoiding elections at least until well into 2021, with Anwar and his threat to poach UMNO MPs remaining his main, if diminishing but still unpredictable, threat.