Muhyiddin's four-year-old Bersatu party holds polls amid challenges

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin retained his presidency uncontested in party elections in July. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's party is holding its first internal election this month at a time of major external and internal challenges that have shaken the four-year-old party and could decide its future.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is reeling from a wave of defections by some members, who left it for a new party launched by its ex-chairman and former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Externally, Bersatu has been struggling to be accepted as an equal partner with its alliance members, Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia.

The party founded by Tan Sri Muhyiddin and Tun Dr Mahathir scored a historic win in the 2018 general elections as part of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

But the two split up after PH lost its grip on federal power as a result of Mr Muhyiddin pulling Bersatu out to join forces with former foes Umno and PAS. He was appointed the new prime minister on March 1.

Party leaders say Bersatu has stabilised after enduring a bitter power struggle, and is set to formally welcome International Trade and Industry Minister and former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) lawmaker Azmin Ali, and nine other PKR MPs into its fold later this month.

"The coalition that governs this country is getting stronger each day, it is in a good position. The PM has been able to sustain support for his position," Bersatu supreme council member and Special Functions Minister Redzuan Yusof told The Straits Times.

Mr Muhyiddin retained his presidency uncontested in party elections in July, and the deputy president, who also won uncontested, is Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu.

The chairman's post was removed following a leadership kerfuffle when Dr Mahathir, his son Mukhriz, who was deputy president, and several others were purged from Bersatu.

Now, Bersatu needs to strengthen its pillars and close ranks after Dr Mahathir's supporters decamped, amid speculation that there could be snap general elections called within months.

Seventeen candidates are vying for three vice-presidents' posts on Aug 22, including Datuk Seri Redzuan, Senior Minister for Education Radzi Jidin, and Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Ronald Kiandee.

Bersatu, which has some 400,000 members, is also now in tough negotiations for seats in an overrun Malay field with PAS and Umno.

"Bersatu is caught between a rock and a hard place," Penang Institute political scientist Wong Chin Huat said.

"The rock is the challenge from Mahathir which threatens to weaken the party. The hard place is greater dominance by Umno and PAS which may give a small number of seats than now to Bersatu and shorten Muhyiddin's premiership."

However, Dr Wong added that the defection of a few state lawmakers and division leaders, while hurting Bersatu's image, does not endanger Mr Muhyiddin's federal power base.

The small pockets of loyalists joining Dr Mahathir cannot compete with Bersatu, which is backed by Umno and PAS' stronger machinery on the ground.

This time around, the ruling coalition is unlikely to be dogged by accusations of kleptocracy as it was during the last general election, as former premier Najib Razak has already been convicted of corruption, pending his appeal and the other cases still in court.

"Muhyiddin can survive until the end of the term as long as he is willing to commit to some reforms in exchange for a "confidence and supply" deal with the opposition, which is not keen for a snap poll," said Dr Wong, referring to a call made by the opposition Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party's Anthony Loke to strike a cross-party deal for stability. A confidence-and-supply deal is where a party or independent members of Parliament supports the government on parliamentary votes in exchange for concessions.

"If Muhyiddin has the courage or magnanimity, he should at least gather all political leaders to sit down for a discussion... see if we can find a formula, a consensus, where we temporarily set aside politics and focus on how we face the pandemic and run the country," former transport minister Loke said at a forum on Sunday.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.