Malaysia PM Muhyiddin to stick to confidence vote next month; fresh polls a 'last resort'

Malaysia's King has joined the chorus of calls for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to prove his majority.
Malaysia's King has joined the chorus of calls for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to prove his majority.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is resisting demands to bring forward a parliamentary confidence vote from next month, despite the King joining the chorus of calls for the embattled Premier to prove his majority.

The Straits Times understands that consecutive meetings were held with party chiefs of his Perikatan Nasional (PN) government on Wednesday evening (Aug 11)  - first at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and then at his residence - to discuss internal matters, as well as the best plan of action moving forward.

Although invitations to the PN meeting were issued on Sunday, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah's request earlier on Wednesday during an audience with the Premier superseded the existing agenda. The monarch had requested that Parliament reconvene sooner than Sept 6, which was scheduled originally by Tan Sri Muhyiddin.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions said Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia believed bowing to royal pressure would signal weakness and encourage opponents to continue fanning public sentiment for the palace to wade into the ongoing political crisis.

This would be consistent with how the Premier dug in his heels last month after clashing with the King, who refused to endorse the Cabinet's decision to revoke emergency ordinances until affirmed by Parliament. The PMO has insisted it acted constitutionally and that the palace agreed the ruler must eventually act on the advice of his government.

"Conceding to the monarchy would make us look shaky," a top PN official told ST. "This would hurt us when negotiating with MPs for support."

Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also said on Thursday that "for now, that is the date, and a notice has been issued by the Dewan Rakyat speaker for it (the vote) to be held on Sept 7".

Eleven Umno MPs withdrew their support from Mr Muhyiddin's government on Aug 3, leading the opposition to claim that his Perikatan Nasional government had lost its majority. Umno, with its 38 MPs, form the biggest bloc in the PN pact.

But on Aug 4, in a nationwide address after meeting Sultan Abdullah, Mr Muhyiddin said he had informed the King he was convinced that he still had a majority and that the monarch agreed that his support be tested in a confidence vote next month.

Critics, though, accused the Premier of misleading the King, who had summoned the Premier to discuss whether he should resign, in line with the Constitution, as he had lost his parliamentary majority.

The opposition insisted the Prime Minister should prove his majority immediately.

They expressed concern that the five-week timeframe until September would allow Mr Muhyiddin to use his powers of incumbency to shore up support.

The PN meetings on Wednesday also discussed efforts to marshal support for the parliamentary vote, officials told the ST, with a fresh election remaining "the last resort", even if the government fails in the confidence vote. About 14 Umno MPs are now believed to have disavowed Mr Muhyiddin's leadership, on top of the 105-strong opposition in the 222-seat legislature. Two seats are currently vacant.

Although there is no provision for a minority government in the Constitution, Mr Muhyiddin's inner circle believes that with at least 100 MPs, they are still best placed to remain in power, as no other candidate appears to be able to garner more support.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat told ST that should the Premier be defeated and Parliament not dissolved, "the King should then give the chance for the leaders of other parties to form the next government".

"If no one can assemble a majority, then Muhyiddin may stay on as the minority PM until he loses the Parliament's confidence again," he said.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has 88 MPs in his Pakatan Harapan (PH), but few among the rest of the 17 opposition lawmakers - largely loyal to former premier Mahathir Mohamad - are willing to back him.

While Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has worked hand in hand with Datuk Seri Anwar in recent months to topple the Premier, Malaysia's largest party resolved at its general assembly this year that it would not ally with its long-hated foe.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (left) and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. PHOTOS: BHM, REUTERS

Umno's Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the nation's longest-serving lawmaker, is seen as a compromise candidate, but Mr Anwar's camp has been unwilling to play second fiddle.

PN's reluctance to dissolve Parliament is also driven not only by fears of being responsible for stoking what is already Malaysia's deadliest Covid-19 wave, but also by the sense that "this will only benefit Zahid". Many in Umno believe the party will regain its dominance in the event of snap polls.

Mr Muhyiddin has alluded to pressure from Zahid's camp, which includes former premier Najib Razak, to intervene in their graft cases, and insisted that he will not interfere with the judiciary.