Making Sense of the Malaysian Political Milieu
Nearly four months since Mahathir Mohamad’s abrupt resignation as the Prime Minister on February 24, Malaysia remains in the grip of political volatility. A series of political manoeuvres, and meetings (including the infamous Sheraton Move) later, Muhyiddin Yassin, a member of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM or Bersatu) was sworn in as the Prime Minister on March 1, heading the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. The unexpected turn of events evoked shock and drew allegations of betrayal by Mahathir, given that PM Muhyiddin led a faction of Bersatu away from the party and former ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to join hands with the opposition to form the government.
There still remains uncertainty over the numbers each coalition holds in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat (Lower House of Parliament), with numbers constantly “appearing and disappearing” in Mahathir’s own words. PM Muhyiddin previously managed to avoid a vote of no-confidence filed by Mahathir, on May 18. Covid-19 associated health concerns were cited as the reason for the adjournment of the parliament immediately following the King’s formal address.
The speculation as of writing is that the ruling PN coalition government holds 113 seats with the informal support of the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition, while the Pakatan Harapan Plus (Pakatan Harapan plus allies) coalition holds a total of 107 seats. The close numbers have prompted both political camps to attempt soliciting ministers from the opposition parties, compounding the precariousness of the situation.
Rocky Road Ahead
Multiple factors point to the low prospects of Malaysia attaining political stability over the coming months. The instability may also be exacerbated due to disruptions and uncertainties associated with the ongoing pandemic.
To begin with, PM Muhyiddin’s move to go against the norm and abruptly adjourn the Parliament session citing Covid-19 related health concerns belie his assurances of enjoying majority support in the Parliament. The razor-thin majority secured by PN will ensure continued politicking and horse-trading in the run-up to the next parliamentary session scheduled to begin on July 13. However, the deferring of the tabling of the budget for 2021, to November 6th instead of the scheduled date of October 2, hints at the possibility of PM Muhyiddin further delaying the convening of the upcoming Parliament session scheduled in July. Even if PM Muhyiddin survives a no-confidence motion, the risks associated with having a government banking on a slim and unreliable majority may prompt the king to call for a snap election.
Second, PM Muhyiddin’s dismissal of Mahathir from the Bersatu party they co-founded has effectively sealed any possibility of a rapprochement between the two leaders. Mahathir’s lawsuit against his expulsion may take months to be legally settled and hence prevent any immediate resolution. PM Muhyiddin’s decision to expel a revered nonagenarian leader like Mahathir may be viewed as an attempt by Muhyiddin to reiterate and project his decisiveness to take on defiance. This serves the dual purpose of winning the confidence of his new allies while also destabilizing the opposition and disincentivizing potential defections from his party.
Third, within the PN coalition, Bersatu finds itself at a disadvantage and hence PM Muhyiddin will have to walk the tightrope between asserting power and succumbing to pressure from UMNO, PAS and other coalition members. This is largely due to the slim majority commanded by the government where every seat would count, and also because UMNO and PAS together hold 57 seats in contrast to the 31 held by Bersatu.
Instead of riding the tide until the next election scheduled in 2023, the political turmoil has offered the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional an opportunity to seize the reins of the government just two years after its defeat in 2018 under former PM Najib Razak’s leadership. UMNO and PAS’s informal pact resulted in their back-to-back by-election victories against the ruling PH coalition over the past year and a half. The by-election successes consequently motivated the parties to sign a Muafakat Nasional or the National Consensus Charter formalizing their alliance. These developments, combined with recent local polls indicating an increase in support for the Muafakat Nasional have emboldened UMNO and PAS to escalate pressure on Muhyiddin to align with their demands. With very little elbow room for political manoeuvring, there remains the propensity for PM Muhyiddin to run into conflict with his coalition partners and increase prospects of government instability.
PM Muhyiddin has already been accused of succumbing to pressure from UMNO. The dropping of graft charges against the former PM and UMNO leader Najib Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz in May being a case in point. This has heightened concerns of PN potentially facilitating other leaders, including Najib Razak to escape 1MDB-linked corruption charges, as he awaits a verdict on the same on July 28.
Racial Politics Takes Center Stage
No discussion on Malaysian politics is complete without taking into account the ethnoreligious and racial factors propelling governance and decision making. With the heady mix of religion and ethnicity, UMNO and PAS have found a winning formula in the Muafakat Nasional pact. Both the Malay-Muslim based parties reportedly do not have non-Muslim MPs and have been relatively successful in propagating the narrative of a threat to Malay hegemony under the Mahathir-led PH rule. The Chinese-based DAP’s majority stake of 42 out of 108 seats in the PH coalition will only serve to further perceptions of the ethnic Chinese minority potentially challenging Malay dominance. Any attempt to reform the privileges conferred on Malays by the constitution is viewed as an affront to the Malay agenda and supremacy.
The Muafakat Nasional’s by-election victories can also be viewed as the Malay-majority population’s endorsement of racial and religious politics favoring Malay hegemony. In the eventuality a snap election is called, reformist and ethnic-minority based parties like DAP and PKR may also be forced to temper their calls for social reform given the risk of alienating the Malay majority, without which a victory may be improbable. PM Muhyiddin himself had previously declared that he was “Malay” first. His consequent decision to lead Bersatu away from the reformist PH and ally with the opposition is also signalling of the leader’s willing endorsement of the Malay agenda. Given this context, Malaysia is likely to witness heightened racial and religious polarization over the coming year.
The multitude of stakeholders driving Malaysian politics and the significant influence each of these players exercise in their respective domains has convoluted the country’s political milieu. The multiplicity of parties, with most pursuing mutually exclusive agendas, leaves very little ground for convergence. The existence of coalitions within coalitions and individual informal pacts between parties within these coalitions greatly complicates any negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement. These factors, compounded with the pandemic-related disruptions, leads one to believe that all eventualities, ranging from a snap election to continued governance by PN, will likely spell a period of continued turbulence in Malaysia for the remainder of 2020.