The Malaysian prime minister’s position is in jeopardy after the largest party in the ruling coalition called for his resignation even as the country battles one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the region.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of Umno, the party that has dominated Malaysian politics for decades, withdrew support from the ruling coalition, saying that Muhyiddin Yassin, the prime minister, had “failed” to address an economic slowdown or fight the pandemic.
Zahid also called on Muhyiddin to step down and for the appointment of an interim leader until a general election was held.
“He’s in a very fragile position,” said Peter Mumford at Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.
Umno’s decision is the latest upset in Malaysia’s tumultuous politics that risks plunging the country into chaos at a time when authorities are faced with one of the worst waves of Covid infections.
With 800,000 cases, Malaysia is fighting the largest outbreak in south-east Asia after Indonesia and the Philippines. The daily number of infections has surged sevenfold since the end of March, with Malaysia reporting more than 7,000 cases on Wednesday.
“Malaysia’s ongoing political crisis continues to weigh heavily on both the economic recovery and is also a very unnecessary distraction from dealing with what remains a very severe Covid outbreak,” said Mumford.
Analysts said Muhyiddin could face a vote of no confidence when parliament reconvenes at the end of the month after a seven-month hiatus following a state of emergency. But they also said that the prime minister could yet survive.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about backroom negotiations over keeping Muhyiddin in power or trying to find an alternative prime minister,” said Mumford.
It is unclear, too, whether Umno’s decision to withdraw from the coalition was unanimously backed by the party. On Wednesday, the defence and foreign affairs ministers, both Umno members, were promoted by Muhyiddin to deputy prime minister and senior minister, respectively.
Malaysia’s king declared a state of emergency in January, the country’s first since deadly race riots in 1969, at the behest of Muhyiddin’s government. The monarch said the order, which would run until August, was necessary to fight the pandemic. But it also followed the loss of Muhyiddin’s thin parliamentary majority after two members of his coalition defected.
Muhyiddin, who in the past few months has restored his narrow majority, has been accused by his opponents of exploiting the pandemic to cling on to power.