THE collapse of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government yesterday, 17 months after it brought down the 22-month old Pakatan Harapan administration in a similar fashion, has set off another round of political negotiations in search of a new prime minister.
Outgoing Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was responsible for pulling Bersatu out of the Harapan government along with former PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, who took with him a group of PKR defectors in what was described as the “Sheraton Move”, met the same fate when 15 Umno MPs withdrew their support for his government.
While Muhyiddin is now taking a back seat, the power players jostling to become the next government remain largely the same as those who spent hours in backroom negotiations during the week after the Sheraton Move in February 2020.
The situation now, like then, is highly fluid owing to the fragmented political situation where no one coalition has been able to muster a strong, formidable and convincing majority.
In the next days, egos will be tested, political futures weighed and concessions traded as the political parties attempt to strike deals to cobble together a new majority.
Here are the key players who will be behind those negotiations.
Zahid and Ismail Sabri
Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob has moved quickly to position himself as Muhyiddin’s successor.
His logic was simple: If the PN government is retained with an Umno man at the helm, then the 15 Umno MPs led by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi should return to the fold. The status quo can be restored.
But party factionalism is at play. If Zahid backs his rival Ismail, the latter will grow increasingly powerful, being able to dole out patronage and put Zahid at a disadvantage at the party polls.
Already, Zahid is flexing his authority by convening an Umno supreme council meeting to formally decide on a prime ministerial candidate instead of allowing Ismail to run the show.
Faced with graft charges, Zahid’s hope to take over as the prime minister is untenable, but he is looking to install an alternative candidate who will be favourable to his faction’s interest – Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Compared to the divided opposition, PN has a better chance of rebuilding its majority as it is only 11 MPs short and Zahid, who can supply that number, thereby holds a strong bargaining chip.
If PN refuses Zahid’s choice, the Umno president could still turn to the opposition. Despite the “No DAP, No Anwar” narrative, the manoeuvrings in past months suggest that Zahid and PKR president Anwar Ibrahim have been in communication.
However, an alliance with the opposition could be more challenging for Zahid as the opposition is divided and it will also be unpopular with the Umno grassroots.
Anwar and Harapan allies
While Pakatan Harapan may have put a united front in supporting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as its prime ministerial candidate, his allies Amanah and DAP have grown increasingly frustrated that he has yet to be able to cobble together a majority.
Harapan only has 88 MPs and even if it can unite the opposition, they only have 105 MPs. A total of 111 MPs is needed for a simple majority. There are 220 MPs and two vacant seats in the Dewan Rakyat.
But the shortfall is more significant because opposition parties like Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) and Warisan, which collectively have 12 MPs, are not prepared to back Anwar.
The Harapan allies are still mindful of how they supported Anwar during the Sheraton Move, only to backpedal in favour of his rival Dr Mahathir Mohamad after realising the PKR leader was unable to rally additional support from East Malaysian MPs.
They have since proposed various alternatives, including Warisan president Shafie Apdal as prime minister.
Amanah president Mohamad Sabu had even proposed a return to the configuration shortly after the 14th general election, which would see Harapan accepting those who had betrayed the coalition – an unlikely outcome for people like Gombak MP Azmin, who bitterly opposes Anwar.
PKR, however, remains firmly behind Anwar and has not indicated a willingness to consider alternatives.
Both sides are facing an internal deadlock and they may eventually be forced to look beyond their regular circle to break the stalemate.
One group to consider are those who had defected from PKR. While the main conspirators are staunchly anti-Anwar and are unlikely to return to PKR’s fold, a handful had defected after pressure from PN.
Leaders such as Kuala Langat MP Dr Xavier Jayakumar have largely kept a low profile after their defection, compared with other PKR defectors who have been vocal against Harapan. This group is likely to be more amenable to back Harapan again.
Pejuang chief Mahathir
From the onset, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad had refused to back the PN government due to Umno’s inclusion, which has several leaders facing graft charges.
The same leaders were the ones who brought down the PN government.
Mahathir was initially receptive to a government without “kleptocrats”, but shifted his position had during the Covid-19 pandemic, wanting instead a National Operations Council-style entity that governed the country after the racial riots of 1969 until 1971.
The governing council he seeks will comprise primarily non-politicians. It has yet to gain substantial support from major political parties.
What remains of the PN government, however, is now singing the same narrative as Mahathir did – to stop the kleptocrats.
While Mahathir’s Pejuang is taking a neutral position now, that could change if the need arises to block Zahid’s faction.
The PN government largely comprises four key blocs – Bersatu, Umno, PAS and GPS, coupled with other small parties and independent MPs.
Except for Zahid’s faction, Bersatu, PAS and the rest of Umno are staunchly opposed to Harapan, particularly the DAP.
The Malay-based parties have painted DAP as anti-Malay, making it difficult to cooperate.
This means GPS is the natural choice for Harapan to turn to when they face a shortfall of MPs. But time and again, they have failed to convince GPS.
With PKR deeply weakened in Sarawak after a series of defections and Amanah hardly having a presence there, DAP is its main rival and their relationship at the state level has been hostile.
GPS has indicated that it will continue to back PN. Difficult as it may be, GPS is still Harapan’s best bet if any of the major PN blocs are to switch sides.
Following Muhyiddin’s resignation, talks of a unity government have been floated around again.
But the main hurdle that the parties will struggle to decide on is – who will lead?
This is on top of old rivalries. For example, PAS has outrightly said it won’t be part of a government that has DAP in it.
If the political deadlock persists, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may be prompted to intervene and guide them in a certain direction or force them to reconcile their differences.
This could see a candidate not previously considered as a potential prime minister emerge. – Malaysiakini