Umno leader's call for snap polls in Malaysia stirs new infighting

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is calling to hold a general election as soon as possible.
Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is calling to hold a general election as soon as possible.PHOTO: AHMAD ZAHID HAMIDI/FACEBOOK

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Tensions are rising in the largest party in Malaysia's ruling coalition over whether a general election should be held amid the nation's worsening coronavirus epidemic.

Ties between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and key ally Umno, which holds about a third of the seats in Tan Sri Muhyiddin's 12-party government, have steadily deteriorated since Umno threatened to pull out of the coalition in October.

Now at least two ministers have pushed back against calls from Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to hold a general election as soon as possible.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said holding a vote during an outbreak was irresponsible.

"I know among those asking for an immediate election are people from my own party," Mr Khairy wrote on Twitter on Wednesday (Jan 6), referring to Umno. "Don't be selfish."

The intra-party rivalry came to a head this week when Zahid stripped a pro-government Cabinet minister of his party position.

The Umno minister in question, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, said Wednesday he was against any attempts to bring down the government.

"I wasn't comfortable with the repeated talks of dissolving Parliament," said Mr Annuar in a televised press conference. "We shouldn't be talking about an election when the people are so worried about Covid-19."

A general election should only be held after the coronavirus situation improves and is under control, Mr Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party said in a statement late Wednesday.

Bersatu’s main agenda for now is to focus all efforts toward managing the pandemic and reviving the economy, it said. 

Snap polls could significantly worsen Malaysia's virus woes.

The country is struggling to contain a new wave that was fuelled by a September state election held in one of its few Covid-19 hotspots. The nation reported a record 2,593 in new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to the health ministry.

Malaysia went through political upheaval last year as various factions jockeyed for power after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly stepped down in February.

Mr Muhyiddin emerged as the head of an unwieldy bloc with a majority of only a few lawmakers, prompting repeated concerns about the strength and durability of the government.

At a meeting among Umno's top leaders on Wednesday night, the party agreed that it would decide on Jan 31 whether to push the government to hold a general election before the end of the first quarter of this year.

The party would also make a decision on cutting ties with Bersatu for the next polls, according to a statement by the party.

Before the meeting, Foreign Affairs Ministers Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had advised the party to choose its next step carefully.

"If the party decides that all Umno ministers must resign, I will obey and resign," said Datuk Seri Hishammuddin in a blog post on Wednesday. "If the party decides not to continue working with Bersatu, it must decide who Umno will work with in the next election."