August 11, 2021

Asia

MALAYSIA: The walls are closing in on the prime minister

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 3 mins)

King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has asked Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to bring forward a parliamentary vote of confidence. The monarch reportedly made the request during a meeting this morning, 11 August, with Yassin, and it was discussed early this evening by leaders of the prime minister’s National Alliance (PN). Last week, Yassin had said that the vote would take place sometime during the parliamentary sitting of 6-30 September. However, to comply with the monarch’s request in substance (i.e., settling the question whether the prime minister has a majority), the window for this vote would be in the next 10 days. Alternatively, Yassin may resign.

Although the prime minister had sought to defuse the situation last week by agreeing to a confidence vote in the next regularly scheduled sitting, the opposition had persisted with its claim that he had lost control of parliament. On Monday, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) released letters that 13 MPs had sent to the King declaring that they had rejected Muhyiddin as prime minister. Along with two other MPs who had publicly announced their withdrawal of support, this makes a total of 15 MPs that have abandoned the prime minister’s erstwhile 115-110 majority. This week, 105 lawmakers belonging to the opposition also wrote the king that they do not support the prime minister. The numbers now seem to categorically favor the anti-Muhyiddin camp, 120 to 100, and it is unlikely that the king would have asked the vote of confidence to be brought forward if there were still any ambiguities.

While the intense political maneuvering generates the risk of public backlash for both sides, especially considering Malaysia in the midst its most serious outbreak since the start of the pandemic, the situation could be particularly damaging for the prime minister if he is seen as stonewalling in the face of an imminent parliamentary defeat.

One possible outcome after next week is that parliament is dissolved. In this case, elections would have to be held within 60 days. However, given uncertainty around the current outbreak and the fact that Sabah’s state elections were blamed for an October spike in cases, holding elections within the next two to three months could be highly unpopular for all the parties and the monarchy. And with UMNO likely still reeling from the internal divisions generated by the recent crisis, the party is unlikely to want to expose itself to a general election. Therefore, Yassin’s resignation remains possible — even likely — as a solution that can help avoid a difficult election during a public health emergency. It would allow the king, as he did last year, to call on the parties to determine which candidate has majority support and appoint a new prime minister.

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