What does Anwar Ibrahim’s bid to form a new government mean for Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim. Photo: Firdaus Latif / CC BY-SA

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says he has enough support to form a new government. Whether or not he can wrest power from incumbent Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia is poised for more political turmoil.

By Umair Jamal

Malaysia’s political uncertainty has deepened after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed that he has the support of almost two-thirds of the country’s 222 members of parliament (MP) and will soon look to form a new government.

Anwar, who now heads the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in opposition, has refused to share details of his supporters in parliament until he meets the king, whose consent he needs to change the government. In response, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin quashed Anwar’s claims by urging citizens to reject the “blind actions of some politicians.”

Amid reports of a change in government, the ruling coalition last week won a key state election in Sabah. The poll was widely viewed as a referendum on Yassin’s seven-month-old administration. For now, that win gave him much-needed time to bolster his political support base in parliament. However, the result does not mean that the threat from opposition leaders, in particular Anwar, has dissipated.

Understanding the politics behind Anwar’s claims

Anwar’s announcement that he is ready to form a new government marks a dramatic turn in the country’s already tumultuous politics. In March, the PH government coalition that came to power following the 2018 elections fell after a political coup by Muhyiddin, a former ally of Anwar and the then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. As things stand, Anwar needs 112 seats in parliament to form a government. Currently, his allies control 91 seats and therefore need at least 21 seats to reach a simple majority.

Moreover, the government’s response to Anwar’s claim has not been firm, fueling speculation that Muhyiddin may have lost some parliamentary support. Responding to Anwar’s claim that he has the support of several MPs from various parties, Muhyiddin said: “Until proven otherwise, the Perikatan Nasional government is standing firm and I am the legitimate prime minister.

“I urge the people to remain calm to face this situation. This issue will be handled in good order in accordance with the legal processes and federal constitution,” he added.

It is unclear which political party is willing to support Anwar’s latest claim to the top job. However, the fact that he has asked for a meeting with the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, underscores that his claim carries weight. Reportedly, the country’s monarch received a meeting request from Anwar to discuss his plan to form a government. However, the meeting has been postponed as the king was admitted to the hospital last week after falling ill.

The current constitutional crisis may end up politicizing Malaysia’s monarchy. A separate statement released on behalf of the monarch urged all political sides to prioritize the country’s best interests. To an extent, the statement highlights the severity of the political crisis in the country. Seemingly, even the country’s rulers are not keen on seeing another change in government without proper elections.

On the other hand, if Anwar’s claim that he has the support of enough MPs, is not accepted by the monarch, the country may well be on the verge of another crisis. Last week, Muhyiddin reportedly said that Anwar’s claim doesn’t hold any value unless it is done via constitutional means, referring to the requirement for royal assent. Constitutionally, Malaysia’s king has the authority to appoint a new prime minister or call an early general election, which is not due until 2023.

Photo: DannyG15 / CC BY-SA

Will the ruling coalition’s win in Sabah thwart Anwar’s claim to power?

By passing its first electoral test in Sabah, the ruling coalition may have received a much-needed political lifeline. Sabah’s leader called an early election in July after Muhyiddin’s ruling alliance accelerated efforts to wrest power in the strategically important region through lawmakers’ defections. Had Muhyiddin lost, his government’s legitimacy may have suffered a fatal blow.

Amid reports of Anwar trying to form a new government, the victory in Sabah might reassure Muhyiddin’s allies in the parliament and could also encourage him to call an early general election.

Sabah and neighboring Sarawak on the island of Borneo control about 25% of the parliament’s seats and remain important for political leverage. With the win in Sabah, Muhyiddin has the opportunity to convince parliamentarians that he remains the best option when it comes to winning the next general election in the country.

Furthermore, the win may divide Anwar’s supporters as they are yet to announce their support for him publically. Specifying the significance of the Sabah victory for Muhyiddin, Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said that it, “took wind away from Anwar’s sail.”

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham and an expert in Malaysian politics, added: “Muhyiddin has secured enough of a strong performance to strengthen his legitimacy.”

Muhyiddin and his allies are now likely to increase calls for an early election. With Anwar claiming a majority in the parliament, the political situation remains very uncertain. Muhyiddin’s win in Sabah may be enough to buy him some time, but it is not enough to strengthen a regime that remains dependent on the support of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

For Muhyiddin, his chance of winning the next national election depends on how long he can remain as the country’s prime minister. If Anwar can form a new government after obtaining royal support, Muhyiddin’s chances of keeping his allies together will take a hit. That could leave the door wide open for the PH coalition to return to power with Anwar as prime minister.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15