Malaysia’s Covid and Political Crisis

Partyforumseasia:

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) meeting Malaysia’s King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, last November. PHOTO: ISTANA NEGARA, MALAYSIA

When Muhyiddin Yassin, a 74-year-old veteran politician from Johor, took over the prime ministership from Dr. Mahathir Mohamad on 1 March 2020, he started with a double burden and both being rather challenging. The Covid-19 pandemic had already reached Malaysia and has since increased dramatically. According to a Nikkei survey, published 7 July, the country ranks 114 out of 120 surveyed nations in terms of infection management and vaccine rollout. In the regional comparison only Thailand trails Malaysia as no. 118.

The direct political handicap for Muhyiddin is similarly challenging. He was not elected by parliament but nominated after the King conducted interviews with all MPs to gauge the candidate’s parliamentary support. As the parliament is more divided than ever, the legitimacy of Muhyiddin and his fragile Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition has constantly been questioned. As if the Prime Minister was not sure about that himself, he has avoided a formal vote so far, using the Covid crisis as a suitable justification. This break without the 222 member parliament sitting at all is ending right now. The King is urging Muhyiddin to reconvene the parliament which is now likely to happen on 26 July.

The Prime Minister’s tenure and his political survival skills may come to an end after that. On 8 July, the former long-term ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has announced that it will no longer support Muhyiddin. His shortcomings of the handling of the Covid crisis is the upfront argument. With 38 MPs, UMNO can easily topple the Prime Minister, though it is not clear so far how many of its parliamentarians will follow the leadership of party president Zahid Hamidi. Zahid, after Umno was voted out of power in May 2018, is himself under heavy pressure and no longer the power center beside former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Both are political animals of sorts, but they are both facing long lists of corruption charges. Surprisingly enough they are still out of jail.

UMNO seems to be going the way which other older political parties in the region have experienced before. After being for decades one of the richest parties in the world, behind, if not even richer than the Guomindang (KMT) of Taiwan, the 1MDB scandal has exposed the dubious financial tricks of the party and discredited its internal and external money politics. Even if the funding of political parties is predominantly dubious in Southeast Asia, UMNO under Najib Razak has exaggerated it. The well known fact that already relatively moderate leadership positions in UMNO had to be bought by the candidates with payments to the respective electors has made it necessary for the winners to recoup their expenditure within the system and finally at a loss for the taxpayers. Together with a gerrymandering scheme, biased in favor of the conservative rural areas, the grip on funds had cemented the dominance of the party for decades – until May 2018. With the fractious format since then it is not very probable that they can be expected back on top.

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