One thing is for sure, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is more popular than his predecessor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Apart from the first three months after the 14th general election, Muhyiddin’s popularity rating at 69 percent was higher than Mahathir’s, which plummeted to 46 percent in February 2019.

This should give some confidence to Muhyiddin, who may still feel inadequate in surpassing his master.

But that is not what truly matters. The only question that concerns Muhyiddin is whether he has enough bargaining power with Umno and PAS at the seat negotiation table. Everything else is secondary.

Like Mahathir’s term as prime minister, Muhyiddin’s main preoccupation is how to increase the number of seats under his command. Mahathir started the tradition that the prime minister could come from the smallest party in a coalition. When Mahathir assumed prime ministership in May 2018, his party only had 13 seats.

Muhyiddin must lead the largest party

Muhyiddin’s case is worse. There is no agreement among the coalition partners of Perikatan Nasional. Not only is this coalition not registered or formalised, but there was also resistance among the key parties to accept Muhyiddin’s Bersatu.

Only after the addition of Azmin and his gang of 10 did Bersatu have a total of 31 seats. But this was still far behind the BN’s 43 seats.

The bottom line is clear: In order for Muhyiddin to become a strong prime minister, he needs to lead the largest party. To lead the largest party, he needs to contest the highest number of seats, and/or to have a high win-rate in the seats contested.

Realistically, Muhyiddin would need between 45 – 50 seats in Parliament to stay as prime minister. At an estimated 60 percent win-rate, Muhyiddin would need to contest at least 75 seats, and the bulk of this would have to be Malay-majority seats.

But this is where it will fail. The market for Malay votes is saturated within PN. PAS is easier to overcome as this party is not intent on assuming the post of the prime minister; the main mission of the party is simply to stay in government as long as possible. PAS also has a niche Malay market in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which already gives it a stable hold.

Umno does not care about Muhyiddin’s approval rating

The harder partner to deal with is Umno. It has already made clear that the popularity rating of Muhyiddin does not affect the seat negotiation talks with Bersatu.

Umno vice-president Khaled Nordin (above) shares a disdain for Bersatu’s presence in the coalition government. He stated that Umno’s official position does not change. Everything needs to be discussed, and the factor of “personal charisma” propounded by Khairy Jamaluddin does not come into the picture.

Umno supreme council member Razlan Rafii also shared a similar sentiment in implying that things will not be the same if Umno wins big in the next general election. This implies that Muhyiddin won’t be around for long.

Barisan Nasional secretary-general Annuar Musa justified this further, by saying that Umno is being pragmatic now by allowing Muhyiddin to stay. But this shall not be for long because, ultimately, the post of prime minister shall be Umno’s once more.

That is why a 69 percent popularity rating for Muhyiddin is not enough. This is especially so when the popularities of Muafakat Nasional (Umno-PAS), BN and PAS far exceed the popularity of Bersatu at only 28 percent.

Umno understands that this is not a presidential system but a Westminster system. What matters is the strength of the parties and not the individuals. That means the prime minister’s popularity rating could only serve as a derivative strength for his own party.

Muhyiddin’s 69 percent is only high if it also helps elevate the popularity of Bersatu. Here, it clearly does not.

Bersatu matters more

The real numbers we are comparing are that of BN at 40 percent versus Bersatu’s support level at 28 percent. This means that Muhyiddin’s bargaining strength has not increased. In fact, it may have worsened with the addition of Azmin and his gang of 10, who are extremely unpopular on the ground with their traitor status.

Creating a non-Malay faction in Bersatu and exploring Selangor and Penang as options to contest is a sign of desperation for Muhyiddin and his party. PN and Bersatu are not accepted by the Chinese voters, with support not exceeding 35 percent at every survey.

Azmin and his gang of 10 simply do not have enough political capital or credentials to shore up the non-Malay support before the next election. This means that even if Bersatu is allowed to contest more non-Malay seats, its win-rate is likely to be very low. This defeats the purpose.

Muhyiddin is doing the best he can as prime minister, in hopes to create a positive spillover effect to his party. But the truth is that our system rewards parties and not individuals. Bersatu matters more than Muhyiddin.