Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir showed no signs of caving in yesterday, a day after his Umno party's state leaders declared a loss of confidence in him and called for his removal.
But Datuk Seri Mukhriz faces an uphill battle in mustering support within the state assembly, a crucial step if he wants to stay in power. He also sorely lacks much-needed backing from Umno's upper ranks. This is particularly as he now has a strained relationship with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Mr Mukhriz, son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, received a jolt on Wednesday when his colleagues in the party and state assembly called for his removal at a press conference.
Hours later, about 1,000 of his supporters showed up outside the Umno office in state capital Alor Star.
Yesterday evening, Mr Mukhriz told supporters that he would step aside as chief minister if his replacement has the people's full mandate, reported the New Straits Times.
He was quoted as saying he would fight attempts to remove him through improper means.
Rallying behind the embattled Kedah leader, former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Mr Mukhriz is a corruption-free individual who is "not tangled in accusations of moral wrongdoings, breach of trust and bribery".
Tan Sri Muhyiddin himself had been replaced as deputy to Datuk Seri Najib last July after openly questioning the Prime Minister's handling of debt-ridden state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).In a statement yesterday, Mr Muhyiddin said: "My biggest worry is that the split within Umno would become more apparent and Umno as a party becomes weaker."
The party's split between the old guard loyal to Tun Dr Mahathir and members tied to Mr Najib had been widening since last year, after Dr Mahathir stepped up criticism of Mr Najib and called for his resignation over the twin financial scandals of 1MDB's debts and a sum of RM2.6 billion (S$850 million) deposited into Mr Najib's personal accounts.
Mr Mukhriz has sided with his father and criticised Mr Najib.
But the call for Mr Mukhriz's ouster is less unanimous than at first thought, with some in the state leadership reluctant to see political infighting interrupting state affairs.
Kedah Wanita Umno chief Maznah Hamid told Sinar Harian newspaper that she was not informed of the press conference and was present to attend a closed-door briefing with party leaders.
She added that several of her colleagues were told to take part in the press briefing without knowing its purpose.
"I hope the Umno leaders would return to being rational in making decisions," she said, adding that her attendance was not a sign of support for the division heads' actions.
Mr Mukhriz is also finding support from a group of disgruntled Umno branch heads. The group, Gabungan Ketua Cawangan Malaysia, or Coalition of Branch Chiefs Malaysia, called for disciplinary action against Umno Kedah's division heads, saying the press briefing was against party rules.
This is based on Umno's suspension of several branch heads last month after they held a press conference calling for Mr Najib's resignation in October. But party secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said no disciplinary action will be taken against the 14 present at the Kedah press briefing.
If Mr Mukhriz does not resign, he could be removed through a simple majority vote in the state assembly. But Umno might require cooperation from opposition parties as it holds just 19 out of 36 seats, including Mr Mukhriz's. The opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, however, is calling for fresh polls.
The prognosis for Mr Mukhriz is not good. "It's very difficult for Mukhriz to stay on," said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of think-tank Ideas. "He may have a chance to stay in office if Najib and Mahathir resolve their differences. Otherwise, he's just a victim."