Anwar set to continue as opposition chief despite missing deadline to topple Muhyiddin

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with other MPs during a split vote for the committee-level Supply Bill in Malaysia's Parliament yesterday. The Perikatan Nasional government has been able to secure approval for every individual ministry's allocation s
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with other MPs during a split vote for the committee-level Supply Bill in Malaysia's Parliament on Dec 3, 2020. PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's is unlikely to lose his position because of his failure on Thursday (Dec 3) to meet a self-imposed seven-day deadline to topple Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Not only is there a lack of an alternative within the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, but former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal - the top contender to replace him as opposition leader and de facto prime minister candidate - hurt his prospects by ordering his Parti Warisan Sabah to abstain from voting in the ongoing Budget 2021 debate.

Official sources told The Straits Times that Datuk Seri Shafie's renomination for the role rests on whether his backers in PH - which has 91 MPs, and Warisan, one of several independent opposition parties, only eight - can convince their colleagues that the former Umno vice-president is worthy. Earlier this year he was mooted as a compromise candidate when the opposition was at loggerheads over whether to pick Datuk Seri  Anwar or former premier Mahathir Mohamad to lead them. The effort however failed ultimately.

"The (Warisan) boycott will cause trouble for those who want to put forward Shafie's name," a PH lawmaker told The Straits Times. "This gives Anwar an excuse, as he can say Warisan sabotaged him."

In a surprise move, Mr Anwar told opposition MPs not to call for a division in Parliament last week, allowing the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to pass the budget on its second reading by a simple voice vote.

There is widespread speculation that Mr Anwar, who is Parti Keadilan Rakyat president, backed away from a show of hands so that Tan Sri Muhyiddin could not prove his majority in a crucial Supply Bill after potential defections from Umno - a key component in PN - failed to materialise.

Confronted by the 90 other PH legislators over the budget debacle, the opposition leader, who is Port Dickson MP, asked for seven days to prove he that he could muster a parliamentary majority, failing which he said he would resign the leadership of the coalition and the opposition bloc in Parliament, PH lawmakers told The Straits Times.

But at the end of Thursday's (Dec 3) debate for the ongoing committee stage of Budget 2021, PN - which only controls 112 seats in the 220-strong Parliament - has been able to secure approval for every individual ministry's allocation so far even though Mr Anwar has since September claimed to have "strong, formidable and convincing" majority of MPs.

Warisan has been absent from Parliament for all except one vote this week in protest against Mr Anwar's last-minute instruction not to call for a bloc vote at the second reading of the budget Bill on Nov 26. Mr Anwar's decision led grassroots members and supporters of the opposition lambasting it for prioritising political machinations instead of the public interest.

A top Warisan leader said seven of its MPs had to vote against the International Trade and Industry allocation on Thursday, as fellow Sabahan Wilfred Tangau, who is United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation president, moved for RM20 million (S$6.6 million) to be transferred to the Sabah Technology Park.

"We have to support any motion that is beneficial to Sabah, but otherwise, our stand is not to support Anwar's strategy, which is to work with Umno only to become prime minister, rather than to ensure a better budget or government for Malaysia," he said.

Warisan party whip Rozman Isli was quoted by the Malaysiakini news portal as saying that the abstention was to "make sure everybody in the opposition starts to realise that there is a need of a strong leadership in the opposition bloc" and suggested "new leadership" from younger personalities, without stating specific names. Mr Shafie is 10 years younger than Mr Anwar, who is 73.

But PH figures have lashed out at Warisan for refusing to back efforts to defeat the government's budget, accusing the party of seeking revenge against Mr Anwar.

"I call on the Warisan leadership to cease this unreasonable action and remind them to behave like true friends," said PKR Sabah information chief Simsudin Sidek.

Official sources told The Straits Times that the opposition leader is being given more time by his coalition partners, and some believe that this will drag on until Budget 2021's final vote at the third reading on Dec 15.