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July 7, 2021

Asia

MALAYSIA: Parliament reconvenes 26 July, but watch UMNO

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • The most important near-term factor in Malaysian politics is UMNO’s willingness to cut ties with the majority.
  • Public health conditions make it difficult to hold an election before Q4, which may cause UMNO to hesitate to pull the trigger.
  • However, there are anecdotal signs that public discontent with the prime minister is rising, which may give UMNO an incentive to avoid being tainted by association.

Growing public and political pressures have forced Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to schedule parliament’s return for 26 July, with the lower house sitting for five days and the upper house for three.

The session’s agenda seems routine, which is to provide members of parliament information on the National Recovery Plan; amend the legislation and rules on hybrid sittings; and present to legislators the emergency proclamations of the king from the time parliamentary sessions were suspended in January.

Nominally, Yassin is complying with the bare minimum, because he has made no mention of debating current issues. There will likely be posturing by the opposition during the sessions, particularly on the government’s Covid response. But the run-up to the session could provide more signals on the most important question — whether the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which provides one-third of the majority coalition’s seats, is headed for an imminent break that substantially increases the probability of elections, and sooner than later.

UMNO’s complicated politics

The party’s internal dynamics have become much more complicated in recent months, with UMNO suffering the worst infighting since the departure of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad five years ago. Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi wants UMNO to drop Yassin as early as this month and claims to have the support of two-thirds of UMNO’s governing supreme council. On the other hand, Nazri Abdul Aziz, who is part of UMNO’s pro-Yassin faction, says that two- thirds of its MPs want the party to stay in the government. UMNO’s leadership has been flirting with and fighting over the party’s possible defection from the majority for the better part of the year.

Verifying Zahid’s claim is difficult; but if true, he has the upper hand, because the council could order the party to resign and sanction defiant MPs. Nazri and his allies are not members of the council, which decided this year to postpone the party leadership vote until late next year. This gives Zahid an important role in the selection of candidates if the next general elections were to be held — as seems likely — before then. Ultimately, even a departure of only the one-third of MPs, or even a handful, would leave Yassin with a minority.

And then there is the question of what UMNO’s long-term plan is, or even if it has one. Zahid and UMNO are unhappy with their relationship with Yassin’s Bersatu party because of cabinet seat allocations and the potential for competing candidates in an election, but joining with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Alliance of Hope (PH) is also hardly automatic. PH’s member Democratic Action Party, the nominal political representative of the ethnic Chinese minority, hardly sees eye to eye with what it considers the nationalist and Malay-centric UMNO. And Anwar would likely face scrutiny for accepting an UMNO faction where former Prime MInister Najib Razak, whose alleged corruption was a key campaign issue, remains prominent.

One factor that could cause UMNO to hold back its punch is that elections may not be possible until well into Q4, only after cases have stabilized and the vaccine rollout has reached 30% or 40% of the population. Malaysia is now seeing its second spike in cases in four months, which makes an election unlikely until Q4.

Even if Yassin avoids a July confrontation, is he only delaying the

inevitable?

And there are more signs that the pandemic response is becoming politicized, especially with the most recent lockdown. Over the past few weeks, low-income households have been flying makeshift white flags to signal to good Samaritans that they urgently in need food or other basic necessities.

As with the rise of community pantries a few months ago in the Philippines, the white flags’ phenomenon has generated contentious public debate on whether it simply an expression of mutual aid or indicates that popular discontent could fester soon. That was followed this week by an online campaign for those dissatisfied with the government to fly a black flag and to post a picture of it on social media.

For UMNO and even Yassin’s own party Bersatu, therefore, sensitivity to possibly worsening public sentiment may be a rising as factor in their internal decisions. Specifically, if continued association with Yassin is seen by UMNO as possibly weakening its electoral chances, it may decide that an early split works more to its advantage even without elections anytime soon. This would be negative for Yassin because even if he were able to maintain the status quo later this month, his survival would largely depend on shifting.