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Zahid's call for snap election stirs new infighting in Malaysia

[KUALA LUMPUR] Tensions are rising in the largest party in Malaysia's ruling coalition over whether a general election should be held amid the nation's worsening coronavirus epidemic.

Ties between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Bersatu party and United Malays National Organisation, his key ally, have steadily deteriorated since Umno threatened to pull out of the coalition in October, even though Mr Muhyuddin survived his latest leadership test last month when his budget won the approval of lawmakers in the parliament.

Now at least two ministers have pushed back against calls from Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to hold a general election as soon as possible. Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said holding a vote during an outbreak was irresponsible.

"I know among those asking for an immediate election are people from my own party," Mr Khairy wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, referring to Umno. "Don't be selfish." The inter-party rivalry came to a head this week when Mr Zahid stripped a pro-government Cabinet minister of his party position. The Umno minister in question, Annuar Musa, said Wednesday he was against any attempts to bring down the government.

"I wasn't comfortable with the repeated talks of dissolving parliament," said Mr Annuar in a televised press conference. "We shouldn't be talking about an election when the people are so worried about Covid-19." Mr Muhyiddin in November said he intends to hold a general election once the pandemic is over. A spokesperson for the prime minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Snap polls could significantly worsen Malaysia's virus woes. The country is struggling to contain a new wave that was fuelled by a September state election held in one of its few Covid-19 hotspots.

Malaysia went through political upheaval last year as various factions jockeyed for power after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly stepped down in February. Mr Muhyiddin emerged as the head of an unwieldy bloc with a majority of only a few lawmakers, prompting repeated concerns about the strength and durability of the government.

Zahid is set to chair a meeting among Umno's top leaders on Wednesday night, prompting Foreign Affairs Ministers Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to advise the party to choose its next step carefully.

"If the party decides that all Umno ministers must resign, I will obey and resign," said Mr Hishammuddin in a blog post on Wednesday. "If the party decides not to continue working with Bersatu, it must decide who Umno will work with in the next election."

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