Malaysia plunged into a new political crisis Thursday after the largest party in the ruling alliance announced it will withdraw support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and urged him to make way for a new leader.
The announcement could potentially trigger the collapse of Muhyiddin’s unelected government and fresh elections, although they are unlikely during a raging coronavirus pandemic. Muhyiddin and his allies did not comment immediately.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the downfall of the reformist government that won 2018 elections. His Bersatu party joined with the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which was ousted in the 2018 polls, and others to form a new government but the alliance is unstable with a razor-thin majority in Parliament
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said early Thursday that Muhyiddin’s government has failed to rein in the coronavirus pandemic. He said its inconsistent policies and half-baked lockdown measures have deepened economic hardships.
Zahid urged Muhyiddin to resign and make way for a temporary leader to take over until the pandemic eases and a general election can be held safely.
“This is important to allow a government that is truly stable and has the mandate of the majority of the people to be formed,” he said after a meeting of UMNO’s top decision-making body.
UMNO’s decision came just hours after Muhyiddin named Defense Minister Ismail Sabri, who is from UMNO, as his deputy in a bid to persuade the party to stay on. Tensions have been brewing for months in the ruling alliance, with UMNO unhappy at playing second fiddle to Bersatu.
Muhyiddin’s office also said Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein would take over Ismail’s post as one of four senior ministers. Both Ismail and Hishammuddin will retain their security and diplomatic portfolios respectively.
Analysts said Muhyiddin has split UMNO by appointing second-tier leaders to his Cabinet and reinforced it with the new appointments. Local media reported that Ismail led opposition to Zahid’s plan to exit the ruling alliance at the UMNO meeting but hasn’t made any public comments.
UMNO has 38 lawmakers but only 15 are members of the party’s top decision-making body, so it’s uncertain if all of them, especially those in the Cabinet, will toe the party line.
“There has been 17 months of political deals and things have now come to a head. There is open war in UMNO and we have a weak government trying still to stay in power,” said Bridget Welsh from Malaysia’s University of Nottingham and an expert in Southeast Asian politics.
No coalition has a clear majority in Parliament. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may try to seek support but Zahid has said UMNO will not endorse his candidacy for prime minister.
UMNO earlier this year said the party will not work with Muhyiddin’s alliance in the next general election. Its attempt to seek early elections has been stymied by a worsening coronavirus crisis, with the country plunged in a second national lockdown since June 1.
Zahid noted that Malaysia’s deaths from the pandemic had doubled to 5,768 since the lockdown began. Total confirmed coronavirus infections in Malaysia now stand near 800,000, with daily infections breaching 7,000 in the past two days.
He said Muhyiddin abused a coronavirus emergency that was declared in January for his political gain. The emergency suspended Parliament, which means support for Muhyiddin’s leadership cannot be tested.
Muhyiddin agreed to let Parliament resume July 26, ahead of the Aug. 1 expiration of the emergency, after growing pressure, including from the nation’s king.