KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 9 — Despite a solid public approval rating that bested his rivals, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin may not opt for an early general election.
The findings of a recent Merdeka Center poll that showed the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president’s popularity at peak level seem to indicate this would be an opportune time to call for snap polls and quash any lingering doubts over the legitimacy of his government through a new mandate.
The Pagoh MP enjoyed a 69 per cent rating on the back of resounding public support for his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, scoring especially high among the majority Bumiputeras who are happy with Muhyiddin’s performance six months into his premiership.
But within Perikatan Nasional, Muhyiddin is still grappling with friction that is threatening to divide the coalition he leads; his party is competing with two of its major Malay-based component members — Umno and PAS — for political dominance.
Much of the disquiet is centred around the distribution of seats, analysts said. To date, all signs suggest Muhyiddin’s faction has made slow progress in getting Umno to cede many of its traditional seats to Bersatu.
“The thing is he cannot rely solely on popularity alone,” said Sivamurugan Pandian, political analyst at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“He has to look at other issues that he must resolve first. He has to sort (the problem) in Perikatan Nasional, then Muafakat Nasional. Unless and until he can solve all that, he won’t be able to call for elections even as his popularity is peaking.”
Muhyiddin has to deal with growing attacks by Umno factions seemingly displeased to be in a coalition led by its splinter party Bersatu.
These attacks have intensified since rumours surfaced that the prime minister is eyeing snap polls early next year.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the simmering discord underscores Umno’s resentment at having to play second fiddle.
In a worst case scenario, the tension could scupper seat negotiations and force either party to compromise. But Oh predicts that Umno, having ruled for over five decades, is not likely to be the one to give way.
“If Muhyiddin is the indisputable leader in this coalition, then his popularity would help… but the problem here is Umno is not happy to see Muhyiddin leading the coalition and Umno itself would want to lead the coalition,” the analyst said.
And there is also the likelihood that the same faction would find Muhyiddin’s growing popularity to be a threat, Oh added.
The fear could prompt attempts to sideline Bersatu and its president in light of views that the Umno-PAS alliance is strong enough to win the polls on the back of support from ethnic Malays.
Reinforcing this view is an Umno leader’s claim that the party’s supreme council had unanimously decided to contest all its traditional seats, including those eyed by Bersatu, although their president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi later denied this.
“I think Umno is very confident that just working together with PAS under Muafakat Nasional, they will be able to win a lot of seats,” Oh said.
“In that sense Muhyiddin’s popularity is not actually very good news for Umno because they would not like to see Bersatu become stronger and more powerful and they will try their best to squeeze Bersatu during the seat allocation negotiations.
Analysts also see this simmering tension extending beyond just the Umno-Bersatu rivalry.
Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar of Universiti Malaya’s department of international and strategic studies said Bersatu could find itself facing off with PAS, particularly in states where the former once ruled like Kedah, or Terengganu where the Islamist party currently leads with a razor-thin majority.
To avert a full-scale war with an ally, Muhyiddin will have to strike a balance between keeping ties cordial with PAS and staving off the Umno onslaught, which the analyst said is only achievable through strengthening its own position in heavily Malay states.
PAS is currently the government in the northern rice belt states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, where over 80 per cent of its voters are ethnic Malays.
“The problem (of seat distribution) will not just be at the federal but also state level,” Mohamad said.
“Parties can no longer use the last (general) election as a barometer for their performance and party leaders would likely want to have a bigger say in the state (legislative assembly) come the next election,” he added.
“Take for example Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu (where PAS rules)… it would want things to stay that way.”
Merdeka Center’s most recent poll found nine out of 10 Malays and Bumiputeras from Sabah and Sarawak rated Muhyiddin highly. The Pagoh MP was also highly popular among ethnic Indians, with an approval rating of over 60 per cent.
Meanwhile, 58 per cent of respondents rated the PN administration positively, while 28 per cent expressed dissatisfaction or anger.
Muhyiddin’s popularity among the ethnic Chinese, however, was low with just a third of respondents rating his performance well.