Anwar’s Parliamentary Majority – Show and Tell, or Tell Only?

Anwar Ibrahim told reporters today that his Pakatan Harapan coalition has the numbers to command a majority in Parliament. If history is any guide, the political manoeuvre could well be a stab in the dark.

Anwar Ibrahim during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on September 23, 2020
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim points during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on September 23, 2020. The PKR president announced on Wednesday that he has a “strong majority” to form a new government in Malaysia, seven months after his coalition was ousted from power in February. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan, AFP)
Francis Hutchinson

Francis E. Hutchinson

23 September 2020

In a press conference held today at noon in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar Ibrahim, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) President and leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition declared that he had a “strong, formidable, and convincing majority” in Parliament. Declaring that the Muhyiddin Yassin administration had “fallen”, Anwar said he was seeking an audience with the King in order to be named prime minister.

Full details on the identity and size of the new parliamentary coalition were not provided at the briefing. What Anwar would say was that the new grouping had “close” to a two-thirds majority, and that this included MPs from the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) grouping. He added that Dr Mahathir Mohamad – Anwar’s former bedfellow in PH – was not yet a member. Anwar also ventured to say that Muhyiddin, the current prime minister, could play a role in the new administration if he cooperated.

The reasoning behind the paucity of information was that Anwar needed to meet the Malaysian King first before making the details public. The opposition leader stated that he had written a letter and spoken on the phone to the ruler, but had not yet been able to see him. The King is currently undergoing treatment at the National Heart Institute.

At the press conference, Anwar stated that work on securing a parliamentary majority had been ongoing for “months”. However, the timing of the announcement has caught both PN and PH members off guard. At present, all efforts are focused on campaigning for the Sabah state government elections, which will be held this Saturday. Consequently, PH leaders from Penang to Johor stated that while they were not aware of the latest developments, Anwar certainly had their support. In turn, MPs from parties such as the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) reiterated their support for Muhyiddin.

While unlikely, it is possible that Anwar could secure a parliamentary majority, if he can expand PH’s current base of 91 MPs with crossovers from UMNO and East Malaysian parties. However, those with elephantine memories will remember that this tactic has been used before – to little effect. In September 2008, Anwar famously declared that in addition to his coalition’s 82 parliamentarians, he had been able to secure a majority with support from an unspecified number of MPs from across the floor. Then, as now, the precise number of MPs nor their identities were not provided. Following a number of press conferences, the long-awaited majority did not materialise.

There are three likely reasons for Anwar’s move. First, from a numbers point of view, the 91 MPs in the PH coalition is as good as it gets. A nation-wide survey conducted by the Merdeka Center in July and August showed that PH is only supported by 25 per cent of the population, versus 51 per cent for PN. Indeed, support for Muhyiddin hovers at a stellar 69 per cent. In the event that snap elections are held, it is likely that PH’s bloc of parliamentarians would be reduced.

Second, Anwar may be feeling that the leadership of PH is slipping away from him. Following the impasse between Anwar and Mahathir in March of this year, Shafie Apdal has emerged as an alternative candidate for prime minister. The former UMNO leader is a credible candidate, given his national-level experience and his Sabah origins. Having an East Malaysian candidate for the top job would help PH expand out from its peninsular urban redoubts into the constituency-rich Bornean states. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Lim Guan Eng, stated that if Anwar is unable to garner the necessary support, Shafie should be given the chance to lead. Shafie is currently running for the Mentri Besar post in Sabah. Should he and his party, Parti Warisan Sabah, do well, he could emerge as the candidate of an enlarged PH-Warisan coalition.

While Anwar’s power grab might not materialise, it is worth noting that there might be deeper undercurrents within and across the competing coalitions.

Third, Anwar’s liberty is under threat. A challenge has been filed, arguing that the opposition leader’s royal pardon in May 2018 did not follow the appropriate procedure and should be quashed. Anwar’s bid to strike it out was dismissed earlier this week. While remote, there is a possibility that his pardon could be annulled. If this happens, he could return to prison and would most certainly be barred from running for office.

At the time of writing, Prime Muhyiddin Yassin’s 2:30 PM briefing did not directly address Anwar’s challenge. Instead, he focused on the second phase of PN’s Covid-19 response, amounting to RM10 billion. Cabinet members such as Khairy Jamaluddin pooh-poohed the move, stating that a cabinet meeting had just been held without anything “falling”. As for Dr Mahathir, he too is awaiting proof of the numbers.

While Anwar’s power grab might not materialise, it is worth noting that there might be deeper undercurrents within and across the competing coalitions. Earlier this afternoon, UMNO President Zahid Hamidi said that he had been told that “many” UMNO and Barisan Nasional MPs supported Anwar’s moves to form a new government and he was unable to stop them. While this could be due to a nascent Zahid-Anwar alliance, Zahid’s statement could well constitute a shot across the bow for Muhyiddin, telling the prime minister to not to take his support for granted. Zahid is currently on trial for charges of money-laundering, bribery and criminal breach of trust. He was also deeply unhappy with Najib Razak’s sweeping guilty verdict in July.

Zahid’s posturing is precisely the sort of manoeuvres that are put in motion when one shakes the tree, as Anwar has done. In the end, Anwar will have to show that the said shaking bears some fruit in the form of concrete political support.

Dr Francis E. Hutchinson is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme (MSP) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/146

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.