KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 30 — Political analysts saw Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s popularity as a major obstacle to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s bid to take over as prime minister and a possible motive for the PKR president to offer the former a place in a potential Pakatan Harapan administration.
They said the prime minister’s strong approval rating could trigger backlash — and possible political retaliation — to Anwar’s attempt to seize federal power by securing majority support in Parliament.
This meant having Muhyiddin on the PH side would be an advantage for the Opposition coalition, they added.
Last week, former deputy prime minister Anwar claimed to have secured a “formidable” majority with which to form the new government but stopped short of disclosing the number, prompting his critics to dismiss the assertion as a mere bluff.
However, his party colleagues have suggested that by remaining tightlipped about how many MPs are behind him, Anwar was circumventing attempts to dissuade or pressure the defectors from completing the crossover.
Despite Muhyiddin’s role in the so-called “Sheraton Move” in February, Anwar said he was open to giving the former a place in a PH government and that he did not have any personal issues with him.
“Anwar may be seeking to appease the public since Muhyiddin is in their good light,” said Datuk Muhammad Abu Bakar, a political scientist professor at Universiti Malaya.
“By having him on board is a plus factor for Anwar as he may win over segments of voters who view the (current) prime minister favourably,” he added.
“Also, having Muhyiddin on his side will help neutralise any threat of retaliation and reduce friction; it will smoothen the transition.”
Just six months into office, Muhyiddin still has a high approval rating on the back of strong public support for his government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
A Merdeka Center poll released earlier this month found more 60 per cent of respondents expressing satisfaction with the prime minister’s performance, particularly among ethnic Malays and Indians.
This was despite allegations that Muhyiddin, who is president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), an Umno splinter, was a key figure in replacing the PH government in March.
The PH government fell after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stepped down as the country’s eighth prime minister. Dr Mahathir, formerly of PPBM, claimed his resignation was prompted by PPBM’s decision to abandon the ruling coalition at the time together with several PKR federal lawmakers.
PPBM has asserted that it is now the party with most federal seats in Parliament to justify its position as the lynchpin of Perikatan Nasional, although factions within Umno still persist in challenging this, fueling rumours of fractious infighting in the coalition that remained in power only with a razor-thin majority.
Political pundits believe Anwar may have managed to exploit the rift to secure the majority he needs to form a new government, although some also noted that the same MPs could easily be persuaded to withdraw their support.
“I think Muhyiddin is already in the know (about Anwar’s move) and until that support is openly declared and expressed in the meeting with the Agong, there will be space for maneuvering and counter offers,” Muhammad said.
The analysts were also split on whether or not Muhyiddin would accept Anwar’s offer in the event that the takeover materialised.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Foreign Affairs, suggested that Muhyiddin would be open to considering the offer based on his past record.
“Well, Muhyiddin has proven himself to be quite flexible politically, having transitioned himself from powerful (Johor) menteri besar to low-ranking federal minister, then to ceremonial deputy prime minister... coming back to a somewhat demoted home minister, then seizing the golden opportunity to be PM,” he said.
“So it is not beyond him to be a senior minister in a future Anwar Cabinet.”
Speculation is rife that most of the MPs crossing over will be from Umno.
Fuelling this was Barisan Nasional chairman and Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s cryptic statement acknowledging support for Anwar from within his coalition and party.
Nikkei Asian Review in a September 26 report said rumours of the crossover came as officials from Umno feared the outcome of ongoing corruption trials.
Sources were quoted as saying that many leaders are unhappy with Muhyiddin's government after the July conviction of former PM Najib Razak in the SRC International case linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment firm.
Still, many remain wary of Anwar’s claim.
Kartini Aboo Talib, assistant director of the faculty of ethnic studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said the PKR president’s invitation for Muhyiddin to join his government itself was a gambit to court more defections.
“In my opinion, Anwar may not have enough numbers to form a majority that is why he makes an offer to Tan Sri Muhyiddin,” she said.
“If he is confident that he has the majority he can always be bold with tabling a vote of confidence or vote of no-confidence against Muhyiddin. But he didn’t, thus the gimmick behind this is he does not have the majority.”
Muhyiddin’s majority support in Parliament has never been formally established but was estimated to be a two-seat advantage over the Opposition, based on the votes with which PN removed the previous Speaker and his two deputies.