Muhyiddin vs Mukhriz (Mahathir): Experts weigh in on what this means for Bersatu... and Malaysia

(From left) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir attend Bersatu’s second annual general meeting at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre in Putrajaya December 29, 2018. ― Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
(From left) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir attend Bersatu’s second annual general meeting at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre in Putrajaya December 29, 2018. ― Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, May 28 — Clashes within a political party and the fight for top spot are nothing unusual whenever it comes time for party elections. The same holds true for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).

With one major difference.

The personalities involved here have considerable influence on the rest of the country. Not just members of Bersatu.

There is current party president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also the prime minister of Malaysia, then there is the one challenging him for the party post — Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, former mentri besar of Kedah and son of Bersatu’s former chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was also the country’s previous prime minister and father of Mukhriz.

So there you have it: two very distinct camps within the party. One helmed by Muhyiddin and the other by Mahathir and Mukhriz.

Analysts point out that what happens next is weighing on how well Mukhriz does against Muhyiddin as the outcome will determine the political future of the nonagenarian and those within his faction.

Who has the upper hand?

Universiti Malaya Associate Prof Madya Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi sees the upcoming party elections as a double-edged sword for Bersatu, with any outcome set to split the factions and party further.

If Mukhriz wins, Awang Azman said losing candidate Muhyiddin would almost certainly initiate a vote of no-confidence against the newly-elected president in an immediate retaliation.

“But if Mukhriz loses, he will lose a platform to manoeuvre in local politics; Mukhriz’s political career will be over if he is not assisted by Pakatan Harapan (PH),” he said.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia's (UTM) Prof Azmi Hassan feels that Mukhriz will be fighting an uphill battle against Muhyiddin for the presidency, with the latter having a firmer grip on the party and with the added advantage of being able to command stronger support as prime minister.

Azmi predicts that Muhyiddin will win by a landslide which would significantly dent Dr Mahathir’s hopes of controlling the party.

“But the question is, when will the Bersatu elections be held? As for Muhyiddin, the earliest possible date is good for him with all decisions regarding the party basically at his pleasure right now.

“If Bersatu’s election were to be held in the near future and Mukhriz loses big, then this will spell the end of Tun Dr Mahathir, not only in Bersatu but also PH,” Azmi said.

Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun said Mukhriz contesting for the presidency is an obvious sign that Dr Mahathir is not ready to relinquish his power in the party just yet.

Oh said if Mukhriz fails, a breakaway might occur with supporters of Dr Mahathir expected to defect from Bersatu along with him.

“But I think Mukhriz will likely lose, and the Dr Mahathir camp will cry foul about irregularities and so on and make their exit.

“If push comes to shove, father and son can always form another party,” he said.

What next? Another new Bersatu?

Most analysts, though, think it is highly unlikely — due to practical reasons and Dr Mahathir’s waning support within the local political scene — that he and Mukhriz will form a new party in the event Mukhriz loses to Muhyiddin.

“Tun Dr Mahathir needs a party to survive in the current political scenario and he needs PH more than PH needs Tun Dr Mahathir,” said Azmi.

“Tun Dr Mahathir doesn’t have the grassroots support to create a Bersatu breakaway party since Bersatu itself doesn’t have enough grassroots members.

“To make matters worse, Tun Dr Mahathir’s influence in Bersatu is waning by the day,” he added.

Azmi said a more likely and practical option would be to join any of the existing parties in PH should he leave Bersatu, but warned that such a move could mean compromised levels of influence commanded by Dr Mahathir.

“By joining existing PH ally parties, Tun Dr Mahathir’s standing and influence for sure will diminish drastically as compared to the Tun Dr Mahathir in Bersatu,” he said.

Oh said that a Bersatu without Dr Mahathir would most likely see the party surrendering its reins to its Perikatan Nasional (PN) allies to maintain its position within the ruling coalition.

“Without Dr Mahathir, Bersatu can no longer command its own electoral support in a general election without Umno and PAS’ help, which of course comes with a hefty political price,” Oh added.

Azmi and Awang Azman both agree that as a seasoned politician, Dr Mahathir should not be ruled out of any scenario.

Awang Azman said Dr Mahathir is likely to exhaust every single avenue possible to gain an outcome favourable to him, which could start with him attempting to regain his chairmanship.

“Based on current developments, in this situation it seems as though Dr Mahathir is failing with regards to his resignation from Bersatu.

“However, Dr Mahathir is not a newbie to politics, and he will almost certainly do anything to win back the (chairman) post, and this includes employing all legal channels and even persuading several Members of Parliament to support him,” he said.

However, he thinks that a move to “cleanse” the party of Dr Mahathir and his followers is bound to happen.

“It will happen, in part to ensure there is no repeat of such internal threats and rifts within Bersatu,” said Awang Azman.

Azmi added that Muhyiddin currently has the authority to rid the party of Dr Mahathir and his supporters, but pointed out the complications involved, considering the latter as the party’s founder.

“I think Muhyiddin will just pounce on the party election result in a way to force Tun and his supporters to voluntarily quit the party,” he said.

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