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In Malaysia, power struggles, pandemic woes mar Muhyiddin’s first year in office

Malaysia ’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday reiterated his promise to hold elections after the coronavirus pandemic was under control, saying the government’s main focus now was “to steer this country clear of the double whammy of health and economic crises”.

The embattled leader, speaking in a televised address to mark his first year in power, focused on summing up the government’s achievements and pointedly avoided reference to the power struggle that had dominated his time in office. In the past year, he has fended off challenges from rivals while working to consolidate support from coalition members amid internal bickering.

Muhyiddin said he would advise the nation’s king Sultan Abdullah to dissolve Parliament once the pandemic was over.

“Until such time, my colleagues in Cabinet and I will continue to carry out our duties and responsibilities to the best of our ability. When the election is held, of course, we will leave it to the people to decide whether [this] government should be re-elected or otherwise. You are free to choose and that is what democracy is all about.”

The 73-year-old, who came to power last February via a political coup, was able to push key bills such as the 2021 budget through parliament despite his slim majority. January’s declaration of a national emergency earned him further breathing room as it temporarily suspended parliament.

But with MPs now set to meet as early as June following a statement from the monarch – who wields constitutional head of state powers – that parliament could convene under the state of emergency, and a populace unhappy with the dire economic straits brought on by two coronavirus lockdowns, Muhyiddin may be facing a renewed set of challenges ahead of promised elections in 2022.

“Ultimately, as the government’s future is uncertain, pursuing short term personal benefits – including through illegal means – may be more rational for ministers and bureaucrats than thinking of long term national interests,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Malaysia’s Sunway University.

While noting that Muhyiddin had handled the pandemic “relatively well” until September, when the country saw a spike in infections following state-level polls , Wong said “most of the credit should perhaps go to the technocrats and society”.

“The government’s pandemic management since [the state polls] is more haphazard, its federal budget was not bold or innovative in providing relief or stimulus,” he said.

Muhyiddin’s government may fail to produce coherent policies as it worries more about its own survival than the people’s lives and livelihoods, Wong said – a situation compounded by the state of emergency obstructing a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

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Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said there was “a trust deficit” among Malaysians in Muhyiddin’s administration following a series of “ad hoc policies and flip-flops”, as well as indignation over perceived double standards of prosecution applied to politicians caught breaching lockdown and social distancing rules.

Accusations of double standards have even been levied by allies, such as Umno member Puad Zarkashi, who criticised the shortening of quarantine periods for ministers to three days in remarks that saw Muhyiddin demanding a public apology and 10 million ringgit (S$3 million) in compensation for defamation.

Oh, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said such “missteps would usually be understandable due to a raging pandemic but ministers in his cabinet have made statements which … make people doubt whether their leaders know what is important and what is frivolous.”

Awang Azman Awang Pawi of the University of Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies said Muhyiddin’s first year in power would be remembered for the nationwide state of emergency, two national lockdowns and elections in the state of Sabah.

He said the national vaccine roll-out would have a positive impact on the public’s perception of Muhyiddin, if it runs smoothly, but “the immunisation plan does not necessarily solve the problems experienced by the country such as a rising cost of living, less favourable economic environment and social inequality”.

Sworn in a week after a political coup that toppled the Pakatan Harapan coalition of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad , Muhyddin’s rise to power was an unlikely one.

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He had been deputy prime minister and a top member of the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno) under Mahathir’s predecessor Najib Razak, before being sacked in 2016 for criticising Najib over his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad global corruption scandal.

He then joined forces with Mahathir to set up the nationalist Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which as a part of Pakatan Harapan managed to topple Umno – the party of power for more than six decades up to that point – and its allies at the 2018 general elections.

But just 21 months later, Muhyiddin and a rogue faction of elected representatives exited the coalition, causing it to lose its parliamentary majority and forcing Mahathir to resign.

After a weeklong impasse where all sides claimed to have the majority required for a new prime minister to be appointed by the nation’s king, Muhyiddin was handed the top job at Mahathir’s – and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ’s – expense.

However, his Perikatan Nasional alliance has faced its own set of teething problems, from internal dissent to ally Umno’s resentment over being relegated to the back seat of governance after 61 years in power.

In January, Muhyiddin’s former party mulled a split from PPBM as its leaders struggled with a slew of corruption and abuse of power charges made during Pakatan Harapan’s brief tenure, despite Muhyddin handing Umno members ministerial roles and other plum jobs.

Last week, Umno’s Puad Zarkashi told local media it was an “open secret” that his party would split from fellow Malay nationalists PPBM – a move he said would officially be announced following its annual general meeting in March.

“If [PPBM] is sincere about Malay unity, why did it partner with Pakatan Harapan to cause Umno to lose power?” he told local news portal The Malaysian Insight.

Such a split could prove disastrous for Muhyiddin’s leadership, although he may be able to ward off a vote of no-confidence in parliament if “the Speaker of the House plays a role in ensuring Perikatan Nasional survives”, said Awang Azman.

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Last July, parliament’s lower house installed former election commission head Azhar Harun as the new speaker without a vote , in a move that members of the opposition called “disgraceful”.

Muhyiddin’s former colleagues in Pakatan Harapan have also hit out against him, describing their former ally as “Machiavellian”.

“His Machiavellian side is surprising because previously … he had resigned honourably [from Umno] in protest of the 1MDB scandal,” said Wong Chen, a member of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) that forms a part of Pakatan Harapan. “His willingness now to use all means and inducements to stay in power, including setting in motion an emergency will set a bad political precedent for Malaysia.”

Despite the factors working against Muhyiddin, observers said he is unlikely to face much of a threat from his political opponents unless they can effectively mobilise.

“The opposition is the strongest it’s been in Malaysia’s history with only a narrow margin of three votes, but [has made] no impact in shaping public policy or at least countering Muhyiddin’s narrative,” said Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University.

“Anwar’s obsession with enticing Umno defections to enthrone himself as premier makes him reluctant to form a shadow cabinet, naturally crippling Pakatan Harapan’s ability to offer coherent policy alternatives besides attacking Perikatan Nasional’s weaknesses.”

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This, as well as the rift between Anwar and Mahathir that dates back to the latter’s first stint as prime minister in the 1990s, are likely to work against Pakatan Harapan when elections roll around, said Awang Azman.

“The opposition still lacks solidarity,” he said. “Given this, it is expected that Muhyiddin will continue on until elections.”

Muhyiddin’s unlikely rise and subsequent moves have shown he is “very good at holding on to power by any means possible,” said Oh, pointing at the state of emergency as an example.

“But in terms of policy I think this is very bad,” he said. “A lot of us underestimated his ambition to hang on to power as long as possible, but he proves to be adamant.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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