Muhyiddin government on shaky ground as Umno faction threatens to pull support

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian politics is in for a bumpy week, with turmoil sweeping through Umno, a major component member of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s beleaguered Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, and mounting concern over the Premier’s health.

The simmering tensions in Umno have broken out into the open in recent days over plans by the faction headed by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to withdraw its support for the Muhyiddin administration as early as this week, according to senior Umno officials close to ongoing discussions.

The Umno officials said more than two-thirds of the party’s 48-member policymaking Supreme Council have individually pledged their support to break away from the PN coalition that is coming under growing public opprobrium over its handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the deepening economic hardship faced by ordinary Malaysians due to a nationwide lockdown.

Separately, Umno politicians opposed to Zahid have come out to attack the party president, arguing that the planned move by the Supreme Council was contrary to the resolution at a party general congress in March to break away from the governing coalition only at the next general election, which must be held before mid-2023.

Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, a veteran Umno MP and the self-appointed spokesman of the faction aligned to Tan Sri Muhyiddin, said that at least 25 out of the total 38 parliamentarians from the party will abide by the congress session’s resolution in March.

Umno officials aligned to Zahid said that the situation in the coming days remains precarious for the PN coalition and Mr Muhyiddin, who has been in hospital since last Wednesday (June 30) after being stricken with diarrhoea.

“Zahid is holding all the cards now and the mood is that the longer Umno stays, the more the party will be tainted (by its association with Muhyiddin),” said a senior Umno official aligned to the party president.

This official and others in the Zahid faction noted that once the Umno Supreme Council declares its decision to leave PN, Umno ministers and elected MPs from the party who have been appointed to positions in government-linked entities will be directed to resign or risk disciplinary action, which includes being sacked from the party.

Even if the Umno MPs aligned to Mr Muhyiddin remain in government as independent elected representatives in Parliament, the PN government will lose its already razor-thin majority in the 222-member Parliament, raising more questions over the Premier’s ability to cling on to power.

The 74-year-old Mr Muhyiddin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018 and was last given a clean bill of health from the disease last year. He has yet to comment on the turmoil in Umno or how his government will deal with any loss of political support from a crucial member of his coalition.

In a statement issued on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Mr Muhyiddin was being treated for a digestive system infection with intravenous antibiotics and was expected to be discharged from hospital in the coming days.

The political instability is expected to shift public focus in the coming days to the country’s royal households.

Malaysia’s nine sultans have in recent weeks broken away from their traditional symbolic roles in the country’s constitutional monarchy to take a more interventionist position in national politics.

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In mid-June, the sultans, who rotate under five-year terms to serve as king, declared that the country must reconvene Parliament as soon as possible. Sittings have been suspended since a state of emergency was declared in January.

In a separate meeting with the Speakers of the Lower and Upper Houses last week, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, the current King, reiterated his view that Parliament should sit before the state of emergency expires on Aug 1, to debate the government’s handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Umno politicians said that they expect that the withdrawal of the party from the PN coalition will very likely prompt Sultan Abdullah to pressure Mr Muhyiddin to show that he still has majority support to remain as premier, through an urgent parliamentary sitting.

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