UMNO Pulls Support for Malaysian PM, Demands his Resignation

S. Adie Zul, Hadi Azmi and Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
2021-07-07
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UMNO Pulls Support for Malaysian PM, Demands his Resignation Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin during his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince in the capital Riyadh on March 9, 2021.
Handout from the Saudi Royal Palace via AFP

The largest party in Malaysia’s ruling bloc announced early Thursday that it was pulling its support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and calling on him to resign, saying his unelected government had mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and failed to uphold democratic principles.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the United Malays National Organization, made the stunning announcement that signaled the coalition’s apparent collapse, after a four-hour meeting by UMNO’s supreme council that began Wednesday night. Hours earlier, Muhyiddin had promoted two ministers from UMNO, but his move failed to mollify the party, which had propped up his government since March 2020.

“To fulfil the mandate approved by delegates at the party’s 2020 annual general assembly and the failure of the government to fulfil the seven criteria set by UMNO to continue supporting the prime minister, I hereby announce that the support given to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been withdrawn and ceased with immediate effect,” Zahid told reporters.

“UMNO is demanding for Muhyiddin Yassin to step down gracefully to allow a new prime minister to be appointed for a limited period. The new prime minister will be focusing on managing COVID-19 pandemic using inclusive approaches and ensuring that the national vaccination process to be accelerated,” he added.

Muhyiddin’s unelected Perikatan Nasional coalition government has been clinging to power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority. What happens to it now depends on whether lawmakers from a divided UMNO are all on board with the party’s decision.

It also remains to be seen whether Muhyiddin will be challenged during a five-day sitting of the lower house of parliament, scheduled to begin in late July.

For the past six months, parliament has been suspended after Malaysia’s king, at Muhyiddin’s urging, declared a national emergency over the pandemic. The emergency is to expire on Aug. 1.

Zahid said Muhyiddin’s government had failed to manage the pandemic with inconsistent and confusing lockdown policies. Muhyiddin’s advice to the king to declare an emergency was a politically expedient move that undermined parliamentary democracy, the UMNO chief said.

UMNO and the opposition had criticized Muhyiddin’s move to suspend the legislature, when the king declared the emergency on Jan. 12.

Zahid also faulted the Muhyiddin government for the economy’s collapse. He accused the prime minister of not keeping the welfare of people front and center during the pandemic. And last but not least, the prime minister had disrespected the king by not allowing parliament to reconvene soon after the monarch had urged that this be done, Zahid claimed.

After Malaysia achieves herd immunity from COVID-19, the interim prime minister would advise the king to dissolve the parliament and call a general election, Zahid said, “so that the mandate is returned to the people to decide.”

However, the UMNO supreme council will not cooperate with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan alliance, Zahid said, ending speculation that some in UMNO were negotiating with Anwar’s bloc to form a new government.

Many in UMNO have been unhappy with Muhyiddin and his Bersatu party, because they believe the prime minister sidelined their party, which holds the most seats – 39 – in the ruling coalition.

UMNO has vacillated about supporting Muhyiddin. On one occasion, UMNO said that it would back him until the next election and, on another, that it would quit the coalition before national polls.

Last week, media reports quoted unnamed sources as saying that UMNO would pull out of the Perikatan coalition before Aug. 1. These reports came after the government said it would reconvene parliament before the emergency expires on that date.

On Monday, Muhyiddin announced that parliament’s lower house would meet for five days beginning at the end of July, followed by a meeting of the senate for three days in August.

Muhyiddin was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on March 1, 2020, a week after the government of Mahathir Mohamad collapsed, in part because Muhyiddin had deserted it.

He then formed an alliance with UMNO, Malaysia’s oldest political party that was tainted by a major corruption scandal and that he had helped Mahathir topple in the historic 2018 election.

Muhyiddin’s ascent to power was met with howls of protest from citizens who accused him of forming “a back-door government,” but such concerns were soon eclipsed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Game of musical chairs’

On Wednesday, Muhyiddin seemed to try to preempt a move by UMNO to withdraw support, by elevating two of the party’s ministers.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced that senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob was promoted to deputy prime minister, while his colleague, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, was made senior minister, effective immediately.

Analysts said Muhyiddin hoped to capitalize on a rift within UMNO between a faction, headed by Zahid, which wanted to withdraw support from Muhyiddin, and another that did not.

“The appointments are to offset the potential UMNO pullout from the government, at the same time they will further deepen the divide between UMNO president Zahid’s camp and Ismail’s camp,” Bridget Welsh, a political analyst with Nottingham University in Malaysia, told BenarNews.

“UMNO is clearly divided so it is not clear whether the party will accept the appointment,” she said.

Ismail and Hishammuddin, who had earlier thanked Muhyiddin for their promotion, did not immediately comment after the supreme council’s meeting.

Analyst Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim said Muhyiddin had muddied the waters by promoting the two UMNO ministers.

Their elevation was “not just a reward but [a move] to keep them in government by promoting them with such posts,” the retired Universiti Teknologi Malaysia academic told BenarNews.

As it is, Mohamed Nazri Aziz, a senior UMNO politician, told BenarNews in late June that at least 25 of the party’s 39 lawmakers had lost faith in Zahid and backed Hishammuddin to represent them.

Zahid can still fight back, though, said another political analyst, Wong Chin Huat.

“Zahid’s camp can still pull at least six to seven MPs out of the government, leaving Muhyiddin with a minority,” Wong, a political scientist at Sunway University Malaysia, told BenarNews.

He foresees Muhyiddin being challenged in a parliament session after the five-day one, which starts on July 26.

If the government falls, snap polls would have to be called amid a raging pandemic, Wong said.

“It would be irresponsible and objectively improbable to have a snap poll,” Wong said. “So Muhyiddin still needs to find a solution to restore his majority.”

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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