Malaysia election 2022
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Muhyiddin Yassin (centre), former Malaysian prime minister and Perikatan Nasional chairman, during a news conference after the country’s 15th general election on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

The rise of Muhyiddin Yassin: As Mahathir’s star wanes, Malaysia has a new ‘comeback kid’

  • Muhyiddin makes dramatic return after being forced to step down as prime minister in 2021, with Perikatan Nasional on brink of taking federal power
  • Once-dominant Barisan Nasional, heavyweight candidates the casualties of Perikatan Nasional onslaught as upstart coalition sweeps northern states
The roar of supporters was deafening when Muhyiddin Yassin entered the hotel ballroom where Perikatan Nasional (PN) members and top leaders gathered to follow the results of Malaysia’s 15th general election on Sunday morning.

Standing at the rostrum in the predawn hours as the tally neared the end, the former prime minister was the image of confidence as he calmly declared that they were but one step away from taking federal power.

“To form the federal government, we will discuss with the leaders of parties in Sabah and Sarawak soon,” he said referring to the two semi-autonomous states on Malaysian Borneo, to exuberant cheers from the hundreds of coalition members who could hardly believe the outcome.

Muhyiddin on pole: what you need to know after Malaysia’s deadlocked election

PN, which Muhyiddin formed just two years ago when he became prime minister in the aftermath of a political coup, defied all expectations as it finished the contest with 73 seats, the second-largest share of the 222-seat lower house of parliament, known as the Dewan Rakyat.

Formed as a partnership between his Bersatu party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and several other outfits, the upstart coalition was widely seen as a dark horse that was expected to split the votes of the majority Malay-Muslim community that would have typically backed either the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance or the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH).

What happened instead was a complete domination of the northern states of Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, and the spectacular defeat of heavyweight candidates such as the likes of two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition icon Nurul Izzah Anwar.

But the biggest casualty of its onslaught was the once-unassailable Barisan Nasional, which ended the election with just 30 seats as it lost dozens of constituencies once seen as strongholds to PN’s charge.

Even PH, which emerged as the largest bloc with 82 seats, was not spared. Besides Nurul Izzah, other leaders such as People’s Justice Party Secretary-General Saifuddin Nasution Ismail and Amanah Vice-President Mujahid Yusof Rawa were left in the dust despite contesting in what were considered secure seats.

Party coup, angry king, jailed Najib: Malaysia’s tortuous journey to snap vote

PH chief and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had a difficult time winning the Tambun seat in Perak state, where he ousted the incumbent and Bersatu Deputy President Ahmad Faizal Azumu by a slim majority of 3,736 votes.

It was a dramatic return to the forefront of national politics for Muhyiddin, who was forced to step down as prime minister in August 2021 after a rare rebuke by the king over a controversy tied to a Covid-19 emergency declaration amid his weakening hold on parliament.

He rose as the country’s leader in early 2020 after the multiracial PH administration fell to a coup that was orchestrated by him and several others, who abandoned the coalition in favour of working with former ruling party Umno and Islamist PAS to establish a Malay nationalist government.


Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigns after losing majority support in parliament

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigns after losing majority support in parliament

Cleric’s son

A native of Muar in the southern state of Johor, Muhyiddin was born in 1947 as the son of a respected local cleric.

A student of economics, he had worked in the Johor civil service and later shifted to the corporate sector through most of the 1970s, during which time he also became an active member of Umno.

He rose quickly through the party ranks, landing the job of Johor’s mentri besar, or chief minister, which he held for nine years until 1995. He shifted his focus to national politics, holding various ministerial portfolios and in 2009 was made deputy prime minister to then leader Najib Razak.
Najib, however, sacked Muhyiddin as his deputy in government and in Umno in 2015 for questioning his handling of the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad ( 1MDB) scandal that the former had founded.
Muhyiddin Yassin signing a document on his first day of work as Malaysia’s then-prime minister in March 2020. Photo: Malaysia’s Department of Information/AFP

Muhyiddin later joined veteran politician Mahathir – who led an exodus from Umno over the 1MDB scandal – to form Bersatu.

Mahathir and Bersatu were instrumental in helping PH coordinate an aggressive anti-corruption campaign that culminated in their victory in the watershed 2018 national polls, which saw the nation’s first change of government since gaining independence from Britain in 1957.

But prior to working with PH, whose make-up includes multiracial and progressive Islamist parties, Muhyiddin had portrayed himself as a staunch Malay nationalist. During his time as deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, he had said he identified as being “Malay first”.

A poster features Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob near a polling station during a general election in Shah Alam, Selangor. Barisan Nasional suffered its worst ever performance in a general election on Saturday. Photo: Bloomberg

Back in the saddle?

Earlier on Sunday, Muhyiddin received a courtesy call from Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Abang Openg, who also heads the state’s ruling GPS coalition.

GPS won 22 of the 31 parliamentary seats up for grabs in Sarawak state. Along with Sabah counterpart GRS, which won six seats, and “several other” elected representatives, it had given its undertaking to support PN in its bid to reach the threshold of 112 seats for a simple parliamentary majority to earn the right to form the government, Muhyiddin said in a statement on Sunday.

However, PN would still be a few seats short of the target, and with Muhyiddin ruling out working with PH, that leaves BN as its only option to make up the numbers.

Malaysia’s Muhyiddin, Anwar make rival claims about forming next government

BN, which suffered its worst-ever performance in a general election, finds itself in the unfamiliar position of kingmaker as whichever coalition it chooses to partner will take control of parliament and the government.

In a statement, BN chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the coalition was not in negotiations with either PN or GPS to form a coalition government.

“All BN MPs who won in GE15 have signed sworn statements giving the mandate to me... to decide on whatever political coalition to form the government,” Ahmad Zahid said.

The country’s constitutional monarch, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, issued a decree on Sunday instructing the parties or coalitions that claim to have secured the majority to present proof to the national palace, along with their pick as prime minister, before 2pm on Monday.

Whether or not Muhyiddin returns as prime minister, he has already made history as the man who led an upstart coalition that forever changed the face of Malaysia’s politics.