Zahid throws down the gauntlet to Umno’s ministers and MPs

Members of the media watch a livestream of Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s online press conference at Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, July 7, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Members of the media watch a livestream of Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s online press conference at Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, July 7, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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ANALYSIS, July 8 — Umno’s ministers and MPs have a decision to make: to stick or twist. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s survival will depend on what they do.

Stick with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and they will face being sacked from Umno and accused of betraying their own party’s supreme council.

If they choose to abide by the decision of Umno president Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi and the party’s supreme council, the PN government would fall.

Whichever they choose, the Umno supreme council’s decision last night to pull the party’s support for the PN government has thrown Malaysia into political turmoil with no clear end or solution in sight.

Malaysia is now in the throes of political uncertainty even as it continues to struggle with record Covid-19 numbers, a health system bursting at the seams, and ordinary citizens and businesses struggling under a prolonged lockdown.

The prime minister appeared to have steadied the ship yesterday afternoon when he announced the appointments of Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein as deputy prime minister and senior minister, respectively, just hours ahead of Umno’s supreme council meeting.

But Umno president Zahid has now gone all-in by deciding to push through on Umno’s threat to withdraw support for the PN coalition.

Umno’s ministers and MPs, many of whom are said to be at odds with Zahid, will have to make their stand clear on whether they will abide by the decision of the party’s supreme council or resign from it to back Muhyiddin’s government.

Another possible option would be for Umno’s ministers and MPs to ignore Zahid and the supreme council, and rally support to oust him as party president.

With Muhyddin’s Bersatu and Umno both competing as nationalist Malay parties, the PN coalition had always been a difficult dance between maintaining power and the question of which party would become the dominant political force.

Zahid, who is still facing a graft trial, has been seen by some Malaysians as cynically using his position as Umno president in an attempt to overcome his legal troubles. His main ally, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, has already been convicted for abuse of power although he is still appealing the verdict.

If Umno’s ministers and MPs decide to back Muhyiddin, it could spell the beginning of the end for Malaysia’s grand old party, and the emergence of Bersatu as its replacement. Whether such a move will be taken remains to be seen.

Most Umno ministers and MPs have kept their own counsel as to whether they will continue backing the government of the day, although it has been widely reported recently that the majority are against Zahid.

For now, Zahid holds the levers of power in the party. In his statement last night, he cited the backing of the Umno general assembly for the supreme council’s decision to pull the plug on its partnership with Bersatu in PN.

He also announced last night that Umno would not back Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim or Pakatan Harapan to lead a government, in a bid to neutralise attacks against him for allegedly colluding with the PKR president to grab power.

But if Umno ministers and MPs quit the party or even just ignore the supreme council’s decision, he would have little option then but to discipline or sack them.

Any move to sack any minister or MP from Umno will most certainly push them towards joining or at the very least to back a Bersatu-led administration, leaving Zahid and his party in turmoil with very few representatives in Parliament.

In also calling last night for Muhyddin to step down as PM, it was also unclear how Zahid’s proposal for the Yang diPertuan Agong to appoint an interim PM would work.

Constitutionally, anyone appointed PM would still need the backing of the majority in Parliament. An interim PM can only be appointed while awaiting a new government or an election to be decided. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was appointed as interim PM for just a few days last year after he quit as head of government, before Muhyiddin eventually took power.

If Zahid’s gambit succeeds — that is if his party’s MPs and ministers in the PN government backs his move — then Muhyiddin’s government would fall.

An election would have to be called, even though most Malaysians and political leaders do not appear to have any appetite for polls to be held during a pandemic.

Whatever happens, Malaysia’s political instability is likely to continue. Elections, if not forced through now, will eventually have to be called. And even then a conclusive result is not a certainty considering how divided the country’s political parties are now.


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