It is Malaysia’s biggest political guessing game: does Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, have sufficient votes to topple the administration of prime minister Abdullah Badawi in a no-confidence vote?
Mr Anwar claims that he has persuaded enough government members of parliament to support a vote to bring down the government by mid-September. Mr Abdullah suggests his opponent is bluffing and is alleging that the opposition is offering money to government MPs to cross over.
The brinkmanship has taken on new urgency after a small party in the ruling coalition said that it planned to submit a no-confidence motion to parliament on Monday, the first such challenge against a sitting prime minister since independence in 1957. The opposition needs a swing of 30 votes in the 222-member parliament to come to power.
Although the government is expected to block the no-confidence motion on technical grounds, the revolt within its ranks by the Sabah Progressive party has exposed the fragility of the 14-party ruling coalition.
There are concerns that another motion scheduled to be tabled on Monday by the government seeking parliamentary support for Mr Abdullah’s recent unpopular move to raise petrol prices by 40 per cent to curb state subsidies could backfire, with disgruntled government backbenchers voting against the measure.
Rising fuel prices are expected to hit the Borneo state of Sabah hard. Its 24 government MPs, including two from the Sapp, are seen as the most likely to bolt from the ruling coalition.
The state is among Malaysia’s poorest, with local leaders saying that it has been neglected by the central government. Although the state is rich in natural resources, including oil, it receives little of the royalties.
Ethnic tensions have increased in Sabah, where there are more Christians than Muslims, because of a big influx of mainly Muslim illegal immigrants from neighbouring Indonesia and the southern Philippines.
The state also complains it is underrepresented in Mr Abdullah’s cabinet, even though it now holds the balance of power, along with parties from the nearby Borneo state of Sarawak, in the National Front government.
“Abdullah is in a precarious position,” said a foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. Although Sapp has not decided yet whether to quit the ruling coalition, such a move could trigger the defection of other Sabah parties.
Mr Abdullah has accused Yong Teck Lee, the Sapp leader, of being “greedy” in his political demands and the government has announced the reopening of a probe into a 12-year-old graft case involving him.
But the government stopped short of taking punitive action against Sapp and its supporters in a sign that ruling party officials are worried about the coalition’s unity. Mr Anwar is wooing the Sabah parties and has made several visits to the state since March, when the opposition delivered the biggest setback to the government in 50 years by taking more than a third of parliamentary seats and five of the 13 state governments. He has promised to increase the amount of oil and gas royalties awarded to Sabah.
Political analysts say that even if Mr Anwar does not have the votes to overthrow Mr Abdullah, the revolt by Sapp is expected to weaken the prime minister.