Ex-Malaysian PM Muhyiddin's Bersatu hit by defections ahead of Johor polls

This comes after a top figure from his own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia quit on Thursday and pledged support for its rival Barisan Nasional. PHOTO: MUHYIDDIN YASSIN/FACEBOOK

KUALA LUMPUR - Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's Perikatan Nasional (PN) bloc has suffered an early blow ahead of a crucial poll in Johor - the former premier's home state - after a top figure from his own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia quit on Thursday (Jan 27) and pledged support for its rival Barisan Nasional (BN).

Tebrau chief Mazlan Bujang, who was Johor's education, information, heritage and culture executive councillor until the state assembly was dissolved on Saturday, said he was leaving with 23 other members from the division to back the Umno-led BN and the leadership of caretaker chief minister, Hasni Mohammad.

"I have made the decision so that we can give way to a more stable political environment and for the betterment of the Johor people in general," the Puteri Wangsa assemblyman told a press conference, adding that he felt disrespected by Mr Muhyiddin after being removed as state chief.

On Monday, he disclosed that that there were differences between him and the party president.

"Muhyiddin doesn't own the party," he was quoted as saying by Malay daily Berita Harian.

"I don't want to be with a Bersatu that is led by the former prime minister. I see no future to continue being with the party," he added. 

Mr Mazlan's decision followed days of speculation that three Bersatu assemblymen in Johor would defect to Umno.

In an immediate response, Mr Muhyiddin blasted his former colleague, branding him as dishonourable.

"Why is he behaving like this? He only wants to say something now, or maybe he knows he will not be one of our candidates," said the former premier. "He wants Umno? He thinks Umno will nominate him? Now (that the assembly has dissolved) this does not matter anymore and it is just history. He wants to leave with two others? Why not 200,000?"

Despite being partners in both the previous state as well as the current federal government, the Bersatu-led PN and BN will be going head to head against each other, as well as the opposition Pakatan Harapan in the forthcoming Johor poll.

Datuk Hasni, who is from Umno, had a tenuous hold over the previous state assembly. He could only count on a one-seat majority in the 56-seat chamber following the death of his predecessor Osman Sapian, a Bersatu assemblyman, who died last month

Umno has been keen to trigger another ballot in its birthplace after an impressive performance by BN in the Melaka poll in November 2021, when it romped home with a three-quarter majority in the state legislature. Another big win for the coalition would underline its dominance over Bersatu, an awkward partner in government, and embarrass Mr Muhyiddin in his own backyard.

A solid performance in Johor would fuel momentum for an early general election that Umno believes will restore its dominance in Malaysian politics, less than four years after its historic loss in the 2018 election.

Umno and BN have also been buoyed by the outcome in the Sarawak state election last month. The Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) - which is part of the current Umno-led federal government though it officially left BN in 2018 - won 76 out of 82 seats at stake on Dec 18.

The federal Parliament's current term is not due to expire until mid-2023 and many believe Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is also Umno vice-president, would resist calls for an early general election until he can cement his own position in the party which is riddled with factionalism. Umno's internal leadership election is due by the end of the year.

Not only is the party split between those who want to continue cooperation with Bersatu and those who do not, there are also personal agendas involved.

Graft charges against top Umno figures, and internal upheaval since the 2018 electoral defeat - which saw former prime minister Najib Razak resigning as party president - have transformed Umno's previously linear hierarchy into a complicated matrix.

This has helped Datuk Seri Ismail ascend to the premiership last year despite only being an Umno vice-president, the third-highest post in the party. He is the first Malaysian premier who is not a party chief.

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his predecessor Najib are both facing corruption trials, with the latter appealing a conviction related to the 1MDB scandal.

Mr Ismail became prime minister after both Zahid, Najib and several other Umno MPs withdrew their support from Mr Muhyiddin. Mr Ismail now governs with an identical coalition to that of his immediate predecessor, which includes Umno and Bersatu.

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