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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Anisah Shukry

Anwar seeks to cement Malaysia power with early confidence vote

Unlike Malaysia’s last few leaders, who did all they could to avoid a confidence vote in parliament, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is eager to prove that he commands a majority in parliament.

Anwar on Monday will look to cement his grip on power by proving the coalition he put together after the Nov. 19 general election is stable and can govern effectively. Party commitments so far would give him the backing of nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 222 lawmakers, a supermajority that no Malaysian leader has obtained since 2008.

“I would like to lead with a clear mandate, supported by the majority of MPs,” Anwar said earlier this month. On Friday, party leaders in Anwar’s unity government signed a pact to ensure his administration completes a full five-year term. “There is no reason why we should be talking in terms of fragility or problems to be encountered,” he told reporters after the signing ceremony.

While Anwar is expected to win easily, Malaysia has produced a number of surprises over the past four years. Another one next week — the vote may get pushed to Tuesday due to election of a parliament speaker and swearing in of lawmakers on Monday — would plunge the Southeast Asian nation into fresh political turmoil, leaving the country to search for a fifth prime minister in four years.

That’s unlikely to happen after Anwar secured the support of Barisan Nasional, the second-largest bloc in the government after his own Pakatan Harapan alliance. Through these two groups alone, Anwar controls a simple majority in parliament. He named Barisan Nasional chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as one of his two deputies on Dec. 2 to seal the bloc’s allegiance.

The question is how long Zahid will continue to serve as president of the United Malays National Organisation, which is the linchpin of the broader Barisan Nasional coalition. UMNO must hold internal elections by May 19, and Zahid has faced calls to resign for the party’s poor showing in last month’s nationwide vote.

“The important signposts that will test UMNO’s resolve to remain with Anwar are whether Zahid remains as president after the party election and how the federal coalition performs in the six state elections,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, Deputy Managing Director at BowerGroupAsia.

Several states will be holding local elections next year upon expiry of their legislative assemblies. While the polls have no direct bearing on the composition of parliament, they will be a measure of the new government’s popularity among the public. Two local polls earlier this month suggest Anwar faces an uphill battle to win Malaysians over — particularly the majority ethnic Malays.

In the northern state of Kedah, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan lost a parliament seat it controlled since 2008 by a margin of more than 16,000 votes. Barisan Nasional retained another seat in Pahang state by a mere 573-vote majority.

“This is proof the people have no confidence in the Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional alliance. They are not convinced by the ability of this unity government led by Pakatan Harapan to steer the country,” Muhyiddin Yassin, leader of the pro-Malay opposition alliance, said on Dec. 8.

Politicians have to tread carefully given the monarch’s role in Anwar’s ascension. The concept of a “unity government” originated from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who proposed it last month to resolve the hung parliament. The ruler eventually named Anwar as prime minister after Muhyiddin rejected his idea.

“The MPs have to show support because this is them being the unity government decreed by the king,” Azalina Othman, a Barisan Nasional lawmaker and cabinet minister, said on Dec. 12.

If Anwar happens to lose, he could either request that the king dissolves parliament to hold a new election — something the monarch could reject — or resign along with his cabinet, making him Malaysia’s shortest-serving leader. The king would then once again decide which MP has the majority support to become prime minister.

That would trigger a rerun of the race for a majority that took place last month, as well as in 2020 and 2021 when Mahathir Mohamad and later Muhyiddin resigned as prime ministers. Political allegiances have tended to shift rapidly among some 20 political parties with at least one elected lawmaker.

Although some MPs may be “privately inclined to support” Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance in Monday’s confidence vote, open rebellion against Anwar would earn them public wrath, according to Wong Chin Huat, a professor at Sunway University.

“Anwar winning this vote will seal his legitimacy for months to come,” said Wong, a political scientist at both Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development and Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia at Sunway University. “Perikatan Nasional cannot question his majority.”

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