Deep split may leave Malaysia's Umno with no choice but to wait for polls

KUALA LUMPUR – Senior Umno lawmakers have issued stern warnings against party president Zahid Hamidi’s plans to withdraw support from Malaysia’s embattled Muhyiddin Yassin administration.

Zahid had set a Monday (July 5) deadline for the government to announce a date for Parliament to reconvene.

In a rarely seen show of insubordination in the nation’s largest political outfit, at least three long-serving Umno Members of Parliament have warned that withdrawal of support is contrary to a resolution of the party’s general assembly and could have legal ramifications.

Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa said last Friday that the general assembly had in March already moved to “continue with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government until Parliament is dissolved”.

“If any decision approved by the general assembly is contravened, it could invite intervention from the Registrar of Societies, or court action,” said the Ketereh MP whom Zahid had removed as secretary-general of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition in January.

Head of the government backbenchers Shahidan Kassim said “action must be taken against any member who goes against the party decision… the council and MPs must abide by this”.

“This move to criticise the PN government openly by some Umno members goes against the party’s decision and the president has done so by giving his support for Anwar Ibrahim to become prime minister,” he added, referring to the opposition leader who has long been their nemesis.

Veteran former minister Nazri Aziz, one of two MPs whose withdrawal of support for Tan Sri Muhyiddin in January precipitated the ongoing state of emergency, said “the right body to reverse this decision would be the party’s general assembly and, if he (Zahid) wanted to do this, he should call for an extraordinary general meeting”.

The attacks on Zahid come after furious efforts from both Umno factions to corral support in recent days.

But while party sources indicate that those aligned with the president – including still influential former premier Najib Razak and most of the supreme council – want the once-dominant party to pull support for the 74-year-old Premier, the lion’s share of MPs still want to stay in power until elections can be held.

Sources told The Straits Times that the lack of clarity about what happens next, should Zahid succeed, has led most of Umno’s 38 MPs to prefer the status quo.

With King Abdullah Ahmad Shah unlikely to allow his subjects to go to the ballot box for now, a new premier needs to be sworn in. Datuk Seri Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) is the largest single bloc with 88 out of 220 sitting MPs, but he faces a seemingly impossible task of reconciling his existing allies with Zahid’s cohort.

Not only have PH leaders openly stated that they will not partner “kleptocrats”, but Umno’s general assembly has also decided against working with Mr Anwar.

Insiders revealed that immediately after news broke last Wednesday that the King wanted Parliament to sit before the emergency expires, Zahid began meeting members of Umno’s supreme council – its top decision-making body – and several lawmakers to gain their commitment to withdraw support from the government.

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To counter this, a rival faction on Friday called an emergency meeting of its own.

“They won’t follow Zahid’s orders if it is to abandon the government before it is safe for elections,” an aide to an Umno minister told ST.

Sources with knowledge of the meeting say this group includes Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the party’s most senior figure in Cabinet, as well as Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who has in recent weeks been reported to be leading a charge to block Zahid’s intentions to cooperate with Mr Anwar.

However, those backing the two former deputy premiers insist that “it doesn’t matter who is the next PM, because the goal for the majority of MPs is to change this government that has led us into a deeper coronavirus crisis”.

Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed told ST: “Because the parties can’t get along, the mandate will only be for a new government to see us out of the pandemic and call an election in six months or a year. It’s not a permanent arrangement.”

On paper, PM Muhyiddin commands 113 MPs. With two seats in the 222-strong Parliament vacant, just four Umno lawmakers need to desert him for the government to fall. Aside from Zahid and Najib – both of whom are facing dozens of graft charges with the latter already appealing against a set of convictions – sources indicate that up to 10 more are amenable to crossing the aisle.

But during the emergency, PN has been able to woo MPs from Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat to shore up its numbers, and ruling alliance figures have told ST that “there are more waiting to join”.

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