Malaysia's embattled prime minster on Saturday passed his biggest political test since taking office with a narrow victory in key State elections, which could help strengthen his tenuous hold on power.
Analysts had warned that defeat in eastern Sabah State for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin could have meant the end of his fractious coalition government, which came to power without an election in March.
Adding to his problems, the vote came just days after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim launched a bid to topple Muhyiddin’s administration, claiming he had mustered enough support from members of Parliament (MPs) to take over.
Malaysia has been gripped by political turmoil since the collapse in February of a reformist government, which was headed by Mahathir Mohamad and included Anwar, amid bitter infighting.
Muhyiddin seized power as the head of a coalition backed by the scandal-plagued Umno party, which critics accuse of lacking legitimacy, and his administration has only a wafer-thin majority in parliament.
The elections in Sabah on Borneo island were called after a Muhyiddin ally launched a bid to take over the opposition-controlled local government. But rather than cede power, the chief minister dissolved the State assembly.
After a hard-fought campaign, a coalition of parties backing the national government won 38 out of 73 seats in the legislature, with the opposition taking 32, and the rest going to independents.
Muhyiddin hailed the win in a televised address, saying it “shows that the people in Sabah have confidence in all the candidates that we put forward”.
While the outcome does not directly affect the balance of power at the national level, it was a key test of Muhyiddin’s popularity.
If he had done poorly, coalition partners may have withdrawn their support from his government and forced a snap national poll.
But Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, warned his troubles were far from over.
“He passed the first major electoral test, but barely. He remains a man on borrowed time,” she said.
Anwar’s power play has added to pressure on Muhyiddin but does not appear to have gained traction for now.
He has refused to reveal the number of MPs backing him while the king, who appoints the country’s premier, has postponed an appointment to see him due to ill health.