With Budget 2021 safe, longer-term survival now the focus for PM Muhyiddin

The greater threat to Mr Muhyiddin comes from outside the legislature, with Umno wanting to correct what it believes is an unfair distribution of the spoils of power.
The greater threat to Mr Muhyiddin comes from outside the legislature, with Umno wanting to correct what it believes is an unfair distribution of the spoils of power.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Beleaguered Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was expected to have the fight of his life to secure the passage of Budget 2021 this week, amid persistent assaults on what is the slimmest parliamentary majority in Malaysian history.

But whether the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president still retains the support of the 113 MPs - out of the 222-strong Parliament - that form the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact appears moot for now, with federal lawmakers unlikely to defy the Palace's call to ensure government spending is approved to fight off the blight of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet it is only a temporary lifeline for Tan Sri Muhyiddin, as disgruntlement in his largest ally Umno has even led the party to flirt with hated nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader who has repeatedly claimed in recent weeks that he has the numbers to take over the premiership.

Ironically, despite PN leaders being blamed for record Covid-19 infections linked to the Sept 26 polls in Sabah that resulted from a coup attempt in the eastern-most state, it is this very outbreak that has handed the premier a free pass for the budget vote on the back of the political imbroglio of the past month.

The Cabinet made the shock move to request emergency powers last week (Oct 23) - which would allow the suspension of Parliament - to fight the wave of Covid-19 cases and postpone a by-election in Batu Sapi, Sabah in December, as well as Sarawak state elections due in mid-2021. A national ballot also looms should the government collapse from being unable to approve spending.

While Malaysia's King refused to assent to an emergency, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah softened the blow by twice calling on MPs to back the budget to ensure the battle against the deadly virus remains well-funded. Malaysia's nine hereditary state rulers that take turns to be the federation's supreme ruler are revered, and despite being constitutional monarchs, their statements are widely interpreted as decrees.

"If the emergency was meant to avoid defeat in a supply Bill and possible snap polls, then the royal pressure has nearly the same effect, albeit with some embarrassment for the premier," risk consultants Eurasia Group's Asia director Peter Mumford told The Straits Times.

Parliament reconvenes on Monday for six weeks, with Budget 2021 to be tabled on Friday. Over two dozen confidence motions have also been submitted, but are unlikely to see the light of day as the Speaker will prioritise government business.

The greater threat to Mr Muhyiddin comes from outside the legislature, with Umno wanting to correct what it believes is an unfair distribution of the spoils of power. Failing which, it would rather go to the polls, believing the tides that led to its unprecedented 2018 defeat has not just ebbed, but is now flowing in its favour.

Political insiders say Umno's list of demands include a Cabinet reshuffle which hands them the deputy premiership and key portfolios, and the formation of a presidential council of PN chiefs to confer on major decisions before being adopted as government policy.

But official sources told ST that Bersatu leaders are resisting a Cabinet reshuffle - although they are amenable to a presidential council - as acceding would mean "we will keep having to bow to threats".

For now, the once-dominant Malay party has no choice but to work within the PN framework to avoid being blamed for triggering snap elections which could exacerbate the surge in Covid-19 cases, which have more than doubled in October alone.

Umno has insisted snap polls to end the political uncertainty must be held once Covid-19 infections are minimised, but ST has learnt that a bipartisan committee is looking into a possible confidence and supply agreement that would ensure Mr Muhyiddin remains in power.

Lawmakers involved in the talks said that terms are still being negotiated but it could mean propping up the premier until just before Parliament's term ends in 2023. Umno's stance could shorten or scupper the deal, or the party may end up excluding its 39 MPs from the deal.

Should discussions collapse, then all bets are off after the scheduled debate on Budget 2021 ends on Dec 10, especially if the virus outbreak is back under control. For this reason, Mr Muhyiddin will still have to wade with caution and ensure a budget that is politically watertight.

He will also need to weigh up his options on how to handle Umno.

The premier will have to bet on which option will increase his chances of another term in power: to anger Umno or to hand over some of Bersatu's grip on government resources - ostensibly to buy his three-year-old party time to prepare for polls and enhance the likelihood of a firm electoral pact with PN allies.


Key issues before Parliament

Budget

Government spending for next year is to be tabled on Friday (Nov 6). Failure to pass crucial expenditure is tantamount to not having majority support, which would result in the government’s collapse.

The Budget is also important as it covers the government’s efforts in containing the coronavirus pandemic and restoring the economy.

The King has called for lawmakers to cease squabbling and support the Budget, but some opposition MPs view the Budget vote as a chance to test the legitimacy of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration.

Confidence motions

Opposition MPs have called for a motion of no-confidence in the eight-month old government of Tan Sri Muhyiddin, to test his actual strength in Parliament.

He has a slim majority of two seats, with 113 MPs in the 222-strong Lower House.

To date, a record 25 opposition lawmakers and two government MPs have filed motions of confidence with the Speaker.

Institutional reforms

The opposition are seeking a number of reforms, including an anti-hopping law to prevent MPs from switching parties without losing their seats. Party hopping led to the end-February collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government that was voted in at the 2018 general election.

The opposition wants all 222 lawmakers to receive equal allocations for their constituency, regardless which party they represent. overnment MPs now get RM1.5 million (S$490,000) to RM6 million annually, while opposition MPs get RM100,000 or less.

Meanwhile the government will push through with its Bill for the Independent Police Conduct Commission, which critics say does not empower the commission to take action against errant cops.