A rare public rebuke from the monarch on 29 July has further weakened Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and significantly raised the probability that he will be forced to resign. However, with parliamentary and party politics at a practical standstill, when and how Muhyiddin could depart from office remains unclear. Yassin is becoming more politically untenable as a long-term leader as the country’s current Covid-19 crisis drags on and with the recent misstep. However, he could still survive for several weeks even in an increasingly distracting political environment because of the current parliamentary fragmentation and infighting within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which holds the key swing vote.
The latest crisis was triggered by King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah’s statement yesterday that the revocation of the emergency ordinances — issued while parliament was suspended due to the state of emergency — was rushed. He also said that the announcement of their revocation confused parliament and undermined the rule of law by disregarding the role and powers of the king. This statement was precipitated by Minister Takiyuddin Hassan’s surprise announcement on 26 July that the cabinet had revoked the emergency ordinances effective the previous week. Opposition lawmakers say that the parliamentary debate and consultation with the monarch was needed. Yassin dug in the evening of 29 July, claiming no such impropriety and that the appropriate advice had been given to the monarch.
The key to the near-term outcome, as we have emphasized, remains UMNO. But UMNO is divided, and it is similarly uncertain whether the party can formally end its support of the ruling National Alliance (PN). UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said the party no longer supports Yassin and has asked for his resignation; however, the faction identified with UMNO members in the cabinet claim that the PM still has the party’s support.
A full parliamentary debate could provide clearer signals on where UMNO really stands, but the legislature only resumed session this week after seven months and with a limited agenda. A session was scheduled for yesterday. However, it was postponed to Monday, ostensibly because of new Covid infections in parliament (whether of staff or legislators has not been disclosed). Moreover, the current parliamentary sitting is scheduled to end early next week, with the next one in September, so clarity may not be possible for several weeks should Yassin effectively stall debate or any no-confidence motion.
For this reason, the opposition will try to increase the pressure over the weekend. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has already filed a no-confidence motion, and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has also asked Yassin to resign. The king may also be emerging as a cautious but increasingly important player, and his influence could increase the longer the political stalemate persists. One possibility is that the king could, as a last resort, appoint a new PM. Nonetheless, while the monarch’s willingness to call out Yassin’s alleged procedural breach was a surprise, how much further he is willing to push on the issue is unknown.