Paying the price for Budget U-turn

THE coming week will be a demanding one for Pakatan Harapan leaders as they prepare to mount a fresh challenge to the Budget and repair their credibility.

Many of them are still reeling from the backlash for not living up to their promise to derail the Budget and bring down Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

There was so much hype that the government would fall by Thursday evening, with Pakatan MPs tweeting and building up expectation.

They had not expected the tidal wave of brickbats over their U-turn on the Budget.

Their supporters are angry and disappointed that only 13 MPs, mainly from Pejuang and Amanah, stood up in Parliament on Thursday to demand a headcount on the vote.

One of them was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and as he turned to look around the opposition bench, he was stunned to find the other MPs glued to their seats.

The tenacious man is often associated with the tagline, “my way or the highway”, and you could tell from his facial expression that he was not going to back off.

The government bench has labelled the 13 MPs as “traitors” to the rakyat and the King but they have won praise from Pakatan supporters.

Meanwhile, Pakatan leaders have been publicly apologising to their supporters.

The blame game is still going on although Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has taken responsibility for the change of plan.

Anwar attributed the change of heart to the fact that Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz had responded to some of Pakatan’s demands and included allocations for the working class.

Pakatan leaders and MPs held an emergency meeting for Anwar to clarify why he called off the bloc voting minutes before the Finance Minister finished his winding-up.

DAP MPs, all of whom had received strict instructions to be present to vote, were the most upset. They described what happened as an “ambush” and said they would have problems explaining to their base.

Sources said the discussion grew quite tense at one point, causing Anwar to state that he was ready to quit as Opposition Leader if they were unhappy with his leadership.

Pakatan is preparing to do damage control when the Budget goes to the committee stage next week.

Hang Tuah Jaya MP and former minister Datuk Seri Shamsul Iskandar said it was a strategic decision not to go for a headcount.

“Winning the battle is one thing, we want to win the war. We will scrutinise and make sure that what the minister said in his speech is reflected in the Parliament papers at the committee stage.

“We won’t give them an easy time, ” said Shamsul who is also PKR information chief.

The dramatic events in Parliament suggest that the Pakatan bench is as riven by factions as the government side.

Dr Mahathir’s move to press ahead for a vote count shows he is not taking orders from Anwar. It prompted Barisan Nasional secretary Tan Sri Annuar Musa to let go a cheeky tweet: “2 towkey yang berbeza” (two different chieftains).

The fact that six Amanah MPs broke ranks also calls into question their president Mohamad Sabu’s control over his party.

Both sides of the floor are basically struggling with numbers.

The ruling coalition, which is down to 112 MPs after the death of the Gerik MP, means it is in dire straits every time there is a vote in Parliament.

As for Pakatan, it is apparent Anwar does not have the “strong and formidable numbers” he has been going on about.

“It’s a setback for Pakatan. But does Pakatan really want to take the country into more uncertainty and be blamed for the Budget failing?” said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

Some have asked why Anwar did not take a risk and go for it even though his numbers may not match that of the ruling coalition.

They pointed out that it would have been great optics if all the Pakatan MPs got on their feet to press for a headcount. It would have given Anwar a tremendous boost and sent a signal that Pakatan is with him.

But Anwar probably did not want to give Muhyiddin the legitimacy of numbers.

Amid all that drama, the fact remains that Muhyiddin has lived to fight another day.

“It gives him some breathing space to carry out his policies in 2021, tackle Covid-19 and prepare for the general election, ” said a Putrajaya insider.

Muhyiddin, it is often said, came to power riding on Malay anxiety about DAP and Anwar.

But every corner he turned, there seemed to be someone trying to trip him up yet he seems to bounce back.

It is no secret that Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had also wanted to use the Budget as a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister.

The joke in Putrajaya is that these two men are experts at staying relevant – they create problems in the morning and propose solutions at night.

The thing is that Muhyiddin’s team did not just sit back and wait for things to happen.

Umno ministers were assigned to approach Najib and Ahmad Zahid to seek out what they expected from the Budget and to persuade them to come along.

Senior Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was assigned to talk to Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal on the Budget.

They worked behind the scenes to secure the numbers in Parliament.

Muhyiddin has overcome a key hurdle but more challenges lie ahead.

“The bottom line is that he is still the PM and his government is still there, ” said Khaw.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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