KUALA LUMPUR - While all eyes were glued to the tabling of Malaysia's crucial budget in early November, the seeds of what could be of greater consequence to the nation's seemingly unending political intrigue were being sown up north.
Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu's ouster last Friday (Dec 4), following his failure to win a confidence vote in the state assembly, took nearly six weeks of delicate discussions between his own allies from the Umno state chapter with counterparts from fierce opposition rivals Democratic Action Party (DAP).
"Up until the day of the motion itself, we weren't sure if Umno would actually pull the trigger," a source from the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which includes DAP, told The Straits Times.
An Umno lawmaker had tabled the motion, which saw 24 Perak opposition lawmakers from PH and 24 Umno assemblymen voting against Datuk Seri Faizal, who hails from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Umno had stewed in anger for months over the Bersatu deputy president's unilateral approach to governing and his attempts to force a schism in the largest member of his administration.
The opposition's natural enmity to a sitting head of government was deepened by the fact that Mr Faizal had defected from PH in March despite having been its chief minister following the 2018 elections.
The carefully orchestrated confidence vote that toppled Mr Faizal took a long gestation period due to scepticism on both sides at biting the forbidden fruit.
After all, they have spent decades demonising each other, a mutual strategy that has led to much success.
Umno accuses DAP of an anti-Malay Muslim agenda, while DAP points to endemic corruption in Malaysia's longest-ruling party, which enjoyed six decades of hegemony after independence in 1957.
But after their overwhelming success in booting out Mr Faizal - who only secured 10 votes - PH strategists believe it could be the first of three potential phases of cooperation between the unlikely couple who are the two largest parties not just in the Perak legislature, but also the federal Parliament.
The next problem is to set up a stable government as snap polls are undesirable given that Malaysia is still in the midst of its worst wave of coronavirus infections.
An Umno-PH government - it is learnt the three parties in the opposition pact will act en bloc - remains a dark-horse outcome, but it could even lead to an electoral pact in Perak when expected polls are called after the pandemic eases.
Should these two boxes be ticked, it would have national ramifications, potentially breaking up Tan Sri Muhyiddin's already shaky Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact that only controls 112 seats in the 220-strong Parliament.
Just as with Perak, Umno has been disgruntled at playing second fiddle to Bersatu at federal level, even to the extent of flirting with backing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to replace Bersatu chief Muhyiddin.
A PH official told The Straits Times: "It would be nearly impossible to take back federal government if PN enters the next election as a united alliance. Whatever the damage, we would suffer for working with Umno. At least we have a chance if the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition clashes with the rest of PN."
Those in Datuk Seri Anwar's camp also believe that the ouster of Mr Faizal, and more so a possible deal with Umno to form government, could revive his hopes of a similar outcome at federal level and end his 22-year wait to become prime minister after being sacked as deputy premier in 1998.
It will still require careful massaging of egos and public rhetoric.
"The DAP's Howard Lee - a rising star in the opposition ranks and known among the Malays for his thick Perak Malay accent and deep understanding of Malay culture - was a key player in Ahmad Faizal's departure.
More on this topic
"In the past few weeks, Mr Lee worked hard to deliver the shock result by negotiating adroitly with various groups," wrote ISEAS-Yusof Ishak fellows Faizal Musa and Norshahril Saat.
Umno, led by president Zahid Hamidi, has twice been granted an audience by the Perak Palace to present its claim to lead a new government. But the blow to their deputy president has left Bersatu unwilling to back an Umno replacement.
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) had initially said it would not be part of a new government in a knee-jerk reaction to what it viewed as an act that endangered the unity between itself, Umno and Bersatu.
It later said it was open to discussions but underlined that the Muafakat Nasional accord between the three parties must be upheld.
Umno has 25 members in the 59-strong assemblymen, with Bersatu and PAS having five and three respectively.
It is understood that Umno has managed to add the support of one rebel Bersatu representative and an independent assemblyman, and would inch past the 30-mark for a simple majority if it can woo PAS back.
More on this topic
But The Straits Times understands that Perak ruler Sultan Nazrin Azlan Shah wants a new chief minister to enjoy a large majority to ensure the stability of his administration.
The state has in the past dozen years seen narrow majorities result in at least three mid-term changes of government.
This large majority would be achieved if PH - in which DAP has 16 of 24 assemblymen - were onboard.
Zahid has said Umno is open to forming government with all parties while Perak DAP chief Nga Kor Ming has repeatedly expressed a willingness to put aside differences in the public interest.
More on this topic
Both Zahid's camp in Umno and the Perak DAP have suffered backlash internally over their courtship, leading Mr Nga to issue several explanations.
"Perak DAP's readiness to cooperate with Umno proves... scaremongering that DAP is 'anti Malay or anti Islam' is completely untrue.
"It must be stressed... the main principle is to form a multiracial government that is clean, with integrity and guided by 'good governance'," said Mr Nga.
Already, the newfound love between the two old foes has been contagious enough for Umno’s Johor Chief Minister Hasni Muhammad to unprecedentedly hand opposition assemblymen RM200,000 ($65,650) each for constituency spending, resulting in the state budget being unanimously passed on Sunday.
This is despite his government only holding 29 of the 56 seats in the assembly, where Umno and DAP are the largest parties, with 14 members each.
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.