A wave of weekend defections of officials and rank-and-file members from Malaysia’s ruling coalition to a new “third force” party set up by master tactician Mahathir Mohamad has further loosened Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s shaky hold on power and brought the country closer to snap elections.
Dr Mahathir, 95, announced the yet-to-be-named new party on Friday, declaring his intention for the newest player in Malaysia’s byzantine political landscape to be the kingmaker at the next election, which must be held by September 2023 but could be hastened by the latest move.
At least three supreme council members of the Bersatu Party, which Dr Mahathir formed with Mr Muhyiddin in 2016, crossed over at the weekend along with several provincial party divisions and hundreds of grassroots members, with more tipped to do so in coming days.
Should two or more MPs also defect, the government could be forced to early polls in which Mr Muhyiddin may have to decide whether to stick with his shaky coalition or enter an accommodation with Dr Mahathir.
Malaysian political analyst Oh Ei Sun told The Australian that while more defections to the Mahathir party would certainly further destabilise the Muhyiddin government, it was doubtful any MPs would give up a seat in government to join a marginal opposition party.
“Having said that, Muhyiddin is in a very tight spot. On the one hand there’s this constant Mahathir challenge, but his biggest challenge is UMNO, which would like to swallow his party or marginalise it,” Dr Oh said.
The Bersatu Party was set up by defectors and exiles from the then ruling United Malays National Organisation as a vehicle to topple Najib Razak and his government, which were mired in the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB state development fund scandal. It ultimately did so in a shock election victory in May 2018 after joining forces with Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party and two allied parties.
The reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition government fell apart in February when internal anger spilled over at Dr Mahathir’s failure to hand over the prime ministership as promised to Mr Anwar, and Mr Muhyiddin led 30 Bersatu MPs into an opportunistic alliance with UMNO and its Islamist allies.
Mr Muhyiddin heads the new government with only a two-seat majority, and faces intense pressure to bring his smaller Bersatu faction into the larger UMNO. That pressure has only increased since Najib was found guilty of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering related to 1MDB by the Kuala Lumpur High Court last month and sentenced to 12 years jail and a $69m fine.
Najib’s conviction on charges laid under the former PH government has deeply unsettled senior UMNO leaders, many of whom are awaiting trial on their own 1MDB-linked corruption charges and fear a similar fate. The arrest last week of the former PH finance minister Lim Guan Eng on abuse of power and corruption charges, and then his wife, Betty Chew, on money laundering charges, is widely seen as political payback.
Mr Lim is accused of receiving a ($10m) bribe from a consortium that won the Penang undersea tunnel project and of soliciting a 10 per cent kickback from the profits of the $2.1bn project. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges, which he described at a press conference on Monday as “baseless and politically motivated”. Ms Chew too vowed to fight the charges, writing in a Facebook post that she lived an “ordinary lifestyle with honest earnings”.
“I studied law to uphold justice, and as a lawyer for 26 years, I’ve defended a lot of people in court, making sure their rights are protected,” she wrote. “But today, my own rights are being infringed.”
Both Mr Lim and his veteran political father Lim Kit Siang, who set up the opposition Democratic Action Party, have been jailed before by the former UMNO government under the country’s draconian Internal Security Act.