KUALA LUMPUR - Lawmakers in Malaysia are due to decide the fate of the country's biggest-ever budget bill as soon as Thursday in what's likely to be a tight vote that could topple Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's teetering government and trigger snap elections.
The country's constitutional monarch, Al-Sultan Abdullah, appointed Muhyiddin prime minister in late February after a sudden shift in political alliances brought down the government of Mahathir Mohamad.
Since then, Muhyiddin's ruling coalition has survived by the slimmest of margins with just 113 members in the 222-seat lower house of parliament. It won a vote to oust the speaker of the house in July by a mere 111 votes to 109.
That coalition is looking brittle. The largest party in the pact, the United Malays National Organization, has been grumbling about having to take a back seat to Muhyiddin's smaller party, Bersatu, and a few of its heavyweights have wavered in their support for the 2021 budget. The opposition has also been heckling Muhyiddin's government from the start as lacking popular support for having sidestepped the ballot box.
"The budget vote is essentially a test of the government's legitimacy, and it's an indication of whether the government has a majority or not in parliament," said Adib Zalkapli, a director with consulting firm Bower Group Asia.
Under the so-called Westminster model of parliament Malaysia's government has borrowed from Britain, the budget vote also amounts to "a de facto vote of confidence," Zalkapli said.
Malaysia's constitution does not say that a government or prime minister who loses a budget vote has to step down. But if it does lose, Westminster tradition holds that "the government of the day, and especially the prime minister, would either have to resign or he would have to advise the kind to dissolve parliament," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs who follows Malaysia.
He said dissolving parliament would bring on an election while a resignation could also give the king the option of simply appointing a new prime minister if he believes any other lawmaker is likely to command support from a majority of his or her peers.
It's all uncharted territory for Malaysia, which has never seen a government lose a budget vote because, said Adib, it has never had a government this weak. "This is unprecedented. We've never seen this before. We've never seen a government with such a very small majority, a razor-thin majority."
A team of rivals
Pundits are divided on the Muhyiddin government's chances of surviving its toughest stress test yet.
Adib put the odds at 50-50 and said the main challenge is coming not from the opposition but from Muhyiddin's own coalition partner, UMNO.
After Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, UMNO dominated the country's politics for more than six decades, until a shock defeat to Mahathir in 2018. Now back in the majority, the party has complained about lacking a fair share of key Cabinet posts.
In an October statement, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pledged his party's support for the budget. But over the past few weeks of debate in parliament, a few key members have raised the specter of breaking ranks.
UMNO mainstay Najib Razak, a former prime minister himself, said he would vote for the budget only if more relief for Malaysians suffering the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic were added. Razaleigh Hamzah, another UMNO lawmaker, pulled out of the budget debate altogether after questioning the government's legitimacy. Over the weekend, UMNO vice president Mohamed Khaled Nordin urged party members to vote their conscience.
UMNO has openly called for general elections once the pandemic is under control. But the holdouts may be keen to bring one on even sooner, confident in the party's chances of wresting control from Muhyiddin and Bersatu, said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, a professor of government at Utara Malaysia University.
"They feel that if there is a new election UMNO can contest in more seats, especially seats that were taken by Bersatu; they want the seats back and they feel that they have the support," he said.
Ahmad believes the budget is likely to squeak by but still sees a chance that it could fail.
Oh said Muhyiddin had effectively lost support for the budget already and would now have to win the holdouts over in time to get it passed.
"It's just [about] what Muhyiddin could offer in terms of political concession over the next few days to sort of pull back some of those votes, before it comes to a formal vote," he said.