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Malaysia PM’s Two-Vote Majority Shows Snap Election Still a Risk

Anisah Shukry

(Bloomberg) -- Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s narrow win in a key parliamentary vote on Monday showed that the prospect of snap elections still remains a risk for the country.

Just 111 of 221 lawmakers present voted in favor of the premier’s motion to remove speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, who was appointed by the previous administration, while 109 voted against. One lawmaker in the 222-member body wasn’t in attendance, while deputy speaker Mohd Rashid Hasnon abstained as he presided over the poll.

The vote shows that Muhyiddin has only a tenuous hold on parliament in his first real test among lawmakers after his turbulent rise to power earlier this year. It was a question that has lingered since the king named him as premier to end the political turmoil set off by the abrupt resignation of Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s uncertain political situation has been a sore spot for investors and credit rating companies alike.

“Replacing the speaker is crucial because it’s the speaker who decides if a vote of no confidence can go ahead,” said James Chin, a political analyst who leads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “The vote also confirms what we know already: that both sides are very close in terms of numbers and that the Perikatan Nasional government is not stable,” he added, referring to Muhyiddin’s coalition government.

The opposition bloc has been planning to seek a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin for months, with the motion now placed fourth-to-last on the parliament’s agenda.

Precarious Position

Muhyiddin “remains in a precarious position and if he cannot shore up his majority more ahead of the budget vote later this year then he may see snap elections as the best option,” said Peter Mumford, Southeast & South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Malaysia’s longest-ruling coalition, currently allied with Muhyiddin, has stepped up calls for an early vote after it won a massive victory in a July by-election, the only one that’s been held since the power struggle in February. Meanwhile the opposition side has struggled to agree on who to back as their prime ministerial candidate.

Either way, the minuscule margin suggests a rocky road ahead for Muhyiddin as he seeks to push through crucial policy changes. The government will need all its lawmakers present in parliament to maintain the majority needed to pass laws, including a bill to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the 2021 budget in November.

Parliamentary approval is also required to breach the 55% of GDP statutory limit on government debt, which now stands at 52% as the country puts in motion 295 billion ringgit ($69 billion) of stimulus measures to weather the economic downturn.

The opposition coalition voted against removing the speaker on Monday because the reason given -- that there was a new candidate for the speaker post -- was absurd, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in parliament before the vote.

Former premier Mahathir concurred. “The government wants to change the speaker because he doesn’t follow the government’s orders, but it’s not the speaker’s job to follow the government’s orders,” he said.

(Updates with analyst quotes in fourth and seventh paragraphs.)

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