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Muhyiddin's slim victory in House vote underscores his weak position

A vote to replace the Speaker of the House passes with 111 MPs in favour, and 109 against

Kuala Lumpur

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's thin victory at a key parliamentary vote on Monday shows the spectre of snap elections still looms over the country.

Just 111 of 221 lawmakers present voted in favour of his motion to remove speaker Mohamad Ariff Mohd Yusof, who was appointed by the previous administration; 109 voted against. One of the total 222 lawmakers was absent, while deputy speaker Mohd Rashid Hasnon abstained as he presided over the poll.

Azhar Azizan Harun, a former election commission chairman, was chosen as the new speaker.

The vote cements Mr Muhyiddin's tenuous hold on the House since his turbulent rise to power this year. The question has lingered since the king named him as premier to end the political turmoil set off by Mahathir Mohamad's abrupt resignation.

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Malaysia's uncertain political situation has been a sore spot for investors and credit-rating agencies.

James Chin, a political analyst who leads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said: "Replacing the speaker is crucial because it's the speaker who decides if a vote of no confidence can go ahead. "The vote also confirms what we know already: that both sides are very close in terms of numbers and that the Perikatan Nasional government is not stable," he added, referring to Mr Muhyiddin's administration.

The opposition coalition has been planning to seek a no-confidence vote against him for months, with the motion now placed fourth-to-last in the parliament's agenda.

Mr Muhyiddin "remains in a precarious position and if he cannot shore up his majority more ahead of the budget vote later this year, he may see snap elections as the best option," said Peter Mumford, South-east & South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Malaysia's longest-ruling coalition, currently allied with Mr Muhyiddin, has stepped up calls for snap polls after it won a massive victory in the July by-election, the only one that has been held since the power struggle in February. Meanwhile, the opposition side has struggled to agree on who to back as its prime ministerial candidate.

Either way, the minuscule margin suggests a rocky road ahead for Mr Muhyiddin as he seeks to push through crucial policy changes. The government will need all its lawmakers present in Parliament to maintain the majority needed to pass laws, including the Temporary Measures Bill to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the 2021 budget in November.

Parliamentary approval is also required to breach the 55 per cent of GDP statutory limit on government debt, which now stands at 52 per cent as the country puts in motion 295 billion ringgit (S$95.8 billion) in stimulus measures to weather the economic downturn.

The opposition coalition voted against removing the speaker on Monday as the reason given - that there was a new candidate for the speaker post - was absurd, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in parliament before the vote.

Former premier Mahathir concurred, adding: "The government wants to change the speaker because he doesn't follow the government's orders, but it's not the speaker's job to follow the government's orders." BLOOMBERG

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