KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Locked in a power struggle with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin needs a solid victory in a state election on the island of Borneo on Saturday to stop support within his coalition parties melting away, analysts say.
Anwar ignited political fireworks on Wednesday with the bold claim that he had the backing of nearly two-thirds of the 222 lawmakers in Malaysia’s parliament and would be asking the king to install him as prime minister in place of Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin’s nearly seven-month-old coalition has survived with a wafer-thin majority, and allies have pressured him to seek an early election to secure a strong mandate, rather than wait for a national poll not due until 2023.
Since he came to power, the Southeast Asian nation has been consumed with fighting the coronavirus crisis, relying on the government to bolster its badly hit export-led economy, and the latest bout of political wrangling could hinder those efforts.
The state election in Sabah, where his party is in an opposition coalition, will be Muhyiddin’s first test at the ballot box. While Anwar’s own party is a relatively minor player in the Sabah election, a regional party friendly to his Pakatan Harapan bloc will be the obstacle to Muhyiddin’s allies.
The Sabah contest won’t directly decide the fate of the federal government, but it could give Muhyiddin a foretaste of how he might fare if the king denies Anwar’s request to be given the premiership, and instead tells the politicians to sort it out through a national election.
The king, Sultan Abdullah, cancelled an audience with Anwar earlier this week due to ill health, and the opposition leader is still waiting for a re-scheduled appointment.
While campaigning in Sabah last Friday, Muhyiddin said that he would “hurry up and have the general election” if his coalition won the state contest, according to a report by Malaysiakini news website.
Analysts say Muhyiddin needs a sizable victory in Sabah to consolidate support within his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
“Anything less than a proper win would lead to an even further erosion within Muhyiddin’s coalition, especially amongst members who are on the fence,” said Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, senior associate at political consultancy firm Vriens & Partners.
While Muhyiddin dismissed Anwar’s claims of commanding a majority, the leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party in the ruling coalition conceded on Wednesday that there had been defections to Anwar’s camp.
No major political party has come out in support of Anwar yet. But if he does have the numbers he claims, Muhyiddin’s “only option” would be to call a snap election, a source close to the prime minister’s office told Reuters.
Muhyiddin became prime minister in March, backed by UMNO, which lost the last election in 2018, and Islamist party PAS.
Opponents accused him of stealing power by shifting alliances instead of earning it at the ballot box, as he came out on top in the political wrangling that led to the collapse of the previous government led by Mahathir Mohamad.
Party-hopping has also triggered the election in Sabah, where state government lawmakers defected to Muhyiddin’s coalition.
Analysts say that the party that stands to gain most from the Sabah contest is UMNO, which lost power for the first time in Malaysia’s post-colonial history in 2018 when then-Prime Minister Najib Razak became mired in a massive corruption scandal.
“Whichever way the (Sabah) election goes, UMNO will emerge as the real winner,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia.
“And the prime minister may have to call an early general election to put an end to the uncertainty and instability in the federal government.”
Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore
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