KUALA LUMPUR – Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is in the firing line after declaring his support for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, facing backlash from leaders within his own party as well as its allies in Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.
The Straits Times understands that talks scheduled for Monday (Oct 19) night between the pro-Malay Muslim parties in Muafakat Nasional – Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Umno – were abandoned at the 11th hour after a stand-off with Zahid.
Meanwhile an Umno supreme council pow-wow set to take place on Tuesday to discuss Zahid’s proposal to back Datuk Seri Anwar’s bid to become prime minister was also called off, with party leaders at loggerheads on the issue.
“The meeting has been cancelled after more than a third of the Supreme Council expressed their displeasure at Zahid’s plan. Cracks are widening,” an Umno source told The Straits Times.
The main bone of contention, say sources, was whether these parties could work with Mr Anwar, and the Pakatan Harapan pact he leads.
They object to working with PH and, in particular, its component party the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP). MN was formed to defend Malay rights and privileges, which it claimed were being eroded by PH at DAP’s instigation when they were in government from May 2018 to February 2020.
The official reason for these cancelled meetings was that movement restrictions are currently in place in the capital and the surrounding Selangor state to curb soaring coronavirus infections. However it is understood that party leaders were already present at Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur before the MN meeting was called off.
Some PAS and Umno leaders have publicly expressed disapproval of any pact with Mr Anwar and DAP.
“I was NOT consulted, and this is NOT my position as an UMNO MP. I want to categorically state that I do NOT support @anwaribrahim as PM. I have been consistent – NO ANWAR NO DAP,” tweeted Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, a former party vice-president.
Since Mr Anwar’s bid to form government was first unveiled in late September, speculation has been rife that he would be supported by a faction of Umno MPs. Mr Anwar’s PH pact only has 91 MPs in the 222-strong Parliament, and he will need a minimum of 112 lawmakers to gain a majority.
He had claimed after an audience with the King on Oct 13 to have the support of over 120 members of Parliament.
Umno executive secretary Sumali Reduan denied on Saturday that the president’s office issued a letter to the Palace signed by Zahid and former premier Najib Razak pledging support for Mr Anwar.
But official sources confirmed that in a meeting over the weekend, Zahid, who holds no position in the federal administration, was questioned by PAS counterpart Hadi Awang and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, as to why he would cooperate with Mr Anwar and DAP.
Just hours before Monday’s MN meeting was cancelled, Datuk Seri Hadi wrote on Facebook a post condemning those “Busy Politicking During Covid-19”.
“The public that is suffering from Covid-19 are confounded by political upheavals that should not be prioritised, what more multiplied until they vomit,” he wrote.
Officials in the ruling PN pact have revealed to The Straits Times that in return for continuing to support Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s government, Zahid is demanding a Cabinet reshuffle that enlarges Umno’s role and for these appointments to be based on “the party hierarchy”, which would mean the posts being awarded to his supporters within the party.
They add that Zahid is seeking to restore his grip on the party, after his authority was undermined by Mr Muhyiddin who has prioritised his own party lieutenants and Zahid’s rivals in Umno since forming government in March.
But leaders of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia have called on their president Muhyiddin not to relent.
“We would rather face an election as opposed to reshuffling the Cabinet under threat from an ally. After all, if the government collapses, the public would know that Anwar and Umno caused it,” a party official told The Straits Times.
The postponement of the MN and Umno meetings buy Zahid time to regroup. While Mr Anwar has not specified exactly which MPs back him in addition to those from PH, a separate letter that has gone viral indicates that he counts Umno’s 39 as part of his support.
Some in PH believe that even if their planned countercoup fails, the fact that it has caused huge divisions in PN is considered a strategic victory.
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