Malaysian PM gains political lifeline with budget approval

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s Parliament approved the government’s proposed 2021 budget on Thursday, throwing a political lifeline to embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin amid strong resistance to his 9-month-old leadership.

Opposition lawmakers as well as members of his governing coalition had warned during three weeks of debate that they would reject the budget, citing insufficient funding to fight a surge in coronavirus cases and help those hit by the pandemic.

Finance Minister Zafrul Aziz made some concessions and included more goodies in minor revisions to the 322.5 billion ringgit ($79 billion) budget, the biggest ever, in his concluding speech Thursday in response to the complaints. He insisted that “this is a COVID-19 budget, a budget for survival and resilience.”

In the end, the budget was approved despite the dissenting voices. Still, Muhyiddin is not yet safe. A second round of debate on the budget begins next week, with specific budget provisions up for approval.

“A budget vote has always been a de facto vote of confidence or no-confidence in the government,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Malaysia’s University of Science.

Muhyiddin’s “government is temporarily secure but it will continue to have to fight from bill to bill as it survives on a slender majority and on the goodwill of bigger parties in the (governing) coalition,” he said, adding that bargaining and horse-trading will continue to take place.

Had Muhyiddin failed to obtain Parliament’s support for the budget, it would have triggered new calls for him to resign or spur him to seek a general election, which is not favored during the surge in coronavirus cases. Malaysia’s cases have jumped sixfold in two months to nearly 60,000.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim warned it wasn’t a victory for Muhyiddin’s coalition yet. He said his camp will scrutinize details in the proposed budget in the second round of debate and will oppose it if changes are not made.

Muhyiddin, 73, has only a slim two-seat majority in Parliament. He has been challenged by Anwar, who last month said he has majority support to form a new government with defections from Muhyiddin’s coalition.

The support reportedly comes from the United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the unelected governing coalition, which was angry at being sidelined amid rivalry with Muhyiddin’s own Malay party.

Lawmakers from both sides of the divide have also pushed for a vote of no-confidence in Muhyiddin, but the bids have been thwarted by the house speaker, appointed by the prime minister.

Muhyiddin last month proposed a coronavirus emergency that would have suspended Parliament and given him uncontested powers, but it sparked widespread anger. The king rejected the proposal, saying that existing laws were sufficient to tackle the pandemic, but urged lawmakers to back the budget.

The palace issued a statement later Thursday welcoming the budget approval and said the king thanked lawmakers for heeding his advice. Muhyiddin in a separate statement said the approval will ensure economic recovery efforts can go on.

“He got lucky again — until the next showdown, as his government remains a decidedly weak one,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Muhyiddin took power in March after withdrawing his party from Anwar’s ruling reformist alliance that won 2018 polls. He tied up with the corruption-tainted UMNO and other opposition parties to form a Malay-centric government, but his administration has been riven by infighting.