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KUALA LUMPUR: The biggest party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition said Thursday it was withdrawing support for the embattled prime minister and urged him to step down.

There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, but analysts said he was likely to hold on to power in the short term.

His administration has been racked by instability for months — it only has a razor-thin majority in parliament, and is beset by infighting between different factions. Pressure has mounted since a state of emergency was declared in January to fight the coronavirus under which parliament was suspended, with critics charging Muhyiddin was using the crisis to cling to power.

After a meeting of its top decision-making body that stretched into the early hours of Thursday, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the biggest party backing the premier, withdrew its support.

“UMNO respectfully urges Muhyiddin Yassin to step down to allow a new prime minister to be appointed for a limited period,” party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement.

The new leader would steer the country through a worsening virus outbreak, before fresh elections can be held, he said.

“This is important to allow a new government that is truly stable and holds the mandate of the people to be formed,” he added.

The UMNO leader listed a string of what he said were missteps by the government, that included botched handling of the pandemic and failing to provide for those affected by on-off lockdowns.

Muhyiddin, who leads a party called Bersatu, took power last year following the collapse of a reformist administration.

UMNO held 38 of the 115 parliamentary seats in Muhyiddin’s National Alliance coalition, although allegiances have been changing rapidly in recent months.

A party needs 112 to command a majority.

But UMNO itself is deeply divided, with some such as Zahid pushing for Muhyiddin to quit while others still support his government. Just hours before Zahid’s announcement, Muhyiddin promoted two leading UMNO figures in his cabinet — including naming one as his deputy — in an attempt to ease tensions.

James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said Muhyiddin had chosen the “option of fighting for his political life and dividing UMNO further”. “He’s got no choice but to hang on.” Universiti Sains Malaysia’s professor Sivamurugan Pandian said UMNO’s own divisions “gives time for Muhyiddin to make his next move”.

The leader agreed earlier this week to reconvene parliament on July 26, before the state of emergency ends in August, under growing public anger and following pressure from the king.

But the sitting is short — just five days — and analysts believe he can avoid a no-confidence vote.

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