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EXPLAINER-Malaysia's political crisis leaves Muhyiddin with make-or-break budget challenge

Joseph Sipalan
·3-min read

By Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's failed bid to declare a state of emergency in Malaysia this week could have marked the end of his shaky eight months in power. Instead he fights on, helped by a royal endorsement for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

King Al-Sultan Abdullah refused Muhyiddin's request for an emergency, but also rebuked politicians for engaging in a power struggle that could destabilise the government as it works towards deliverying a budget to help the nation weather the pandemic.

The constitutional monarch's words seemed to have some effect. On Monday, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party in the ruling coalition, affirmed its support for Muhyiddin, but his position remains precarious.

BREATHING UNEASILY

UMNO's continued support gives Muhyiddin some breathing room amid a power struggle with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

But the prime minister, who has survived for barely eight months with a majority of just two seats, faces pressure from some UMNO lawmakers who are unhappy with playing second fiddle in the alliance with Muhyiddin's party.

Anwar's claim of having secured a majority in parliament also looms over Muhyiddin, especially after ex-premier Najib Razak asked some lawmakers in the ruling coalition to back Anwar.

The king's refusal to let Muhyiddin declare a state of emergency to deal with the virus crisis could have damaged the prime minister's credibility. Critics suspect Muhyiddin would have used the opportunity to suspend parliament and avoid a test of his majority.

FIRST BUDGET

Still, it is uncertain whether the government can muster enough votes to pass the 2021 budget, which is scheduled to be tabled in parliament on Nov. 6.

It would be the first budget presented by Muhyiddin's government since it took power in March, and defeat could trigger an election.

Given the infighting, there is no guarantee that all ruling coalition lawmakers would vote in favour of the budget - despite UMNO's reaffirmation of support for Muhyiddin.

"The party president says support the government. But there is no guarantee as it's up to the individual MPs," a senior source in UMNO said.

What could help is King Al-Sultan Abdullah's repeated advice to politicians to stop politicking and focus on the people's interests.

ANY OTHER OPTIONS?

To shore up support, Muhyiddin could try to convince some opposition lawmakers to vote for the budget. Opposition leaders have not ruled out supporting the budget, as yet.

Liew Chin Tong, a senator with the Democratic Action Party, had suggested that Muhyiddin take the first step by giving opposition MPs and government backbenchers equal access to resources and avenues for policy input.

Opposition lawmakers have not said what policy changes they would ask for.

Calls to hold elections to solve the political wrangling have also been growing, especially from UMNO lawmakers. But many remain concerned over having polls during the pandemic. (Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)