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Umno returns to rule: What does the future hold?

Malaysian politics is crying out for a political rebirth

Who will Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob hire next? - WIKIPEDIA

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On 20 August 2021, the Agong appointed Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister.

Ismail Sabri’s unexpected ascendancy to Malaysia’s highest office was the outcome of a series of political machinations that bagged him the support of 114 MPs out of a possible 220. (Two others had passed away.) He had been appointed as deputy prime minister on 7 July – just six weeks earlier (see “Who is Ismail Sabri?”?).

In the race to lead the country, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was again pipped to the finish line.

With Ismail Sabri in charge, Umno, which lost the 2018 general election, has returned to power.

The reality is Malaysia entered an uncertain period of power-sharing politics with Umno’s collapse in that election. Ironically, despite that stunning defeat, Malaysian politics seems to continue to revolve around Umno.

The Pakatan Harapan alliance won in 2018 because Umno splintered yet again, with former party stalwarts Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Mahiaddin Yasin in their new Bersatu party joining forces with PKR, the DAP and Amanah, a splinter party of the Islamic party, Pas.

In the recent turnover of government, Mahiaddin’s downfall happened because the Umno “court cluster” of parliamentarians, namely those implicated in ongoing corruption charges and their allies, withdrew their support.

Mahiaddin’s last-ditch appointments of Umno’s Ismail Sabri as deputy prime minister and Hishammuddin Hussein as senior minister could not stop the pull-out of 14 court-cluster Umno MPs from the Perikatan Nasional-led government.

Now that an Umno leader has taken the top job, could this lead to some level of political stability? What are the immediate and medium-term implications for Malaysia’s future?

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No vote of confidence?

Ismail Sabri faces the potential wrath of those have suffered much under the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. An online petition with over 350,000 Malaysian signatures rejected him as prime minister.

The new PM seems oblivious to this. In a fresh round of musical chairs, he has reappointed almost the same set of ministers to occupy the old furniture.

To disarm the opposition from calling for a vote of no confidence when Parliament reconvenes on 13 September 2021, Ismail Sabri apparently signed some sort of confidence-and-supply agreement with opposition party leaders.

However, his so-called ceasefire agreement with the opposition parties may already be in jeopardy with his choice of Mahiaddin to head the National Recovery Council and the uncertainty over whether the confidence vote will take place.

The short-term question is whether Ismail Sabri can shore up enough support for Umno to survive the current political uncertainty. For now, the new PM must first be confirmed by Parliament through a confidence vote in the coming parliamentary session, which he seems to want to avoid.

Attorney General Idrus Harun has suggested the confidence vote is not mandatory. This contradicts the Agong’s explicit instructions that the new PM must show he commands the confidence of a majority of MPs in Parliament.

These developments point to one fact: the nameless Umno-led ruling coalition is something of a lame duck that can be struck down by any of the three groups that hold it hostage: Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) with 18 MPs; Bersatu, which holds 31 and the Umno court cluster of 14. Pas seems to remain steadfast to whoever holds power.

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On the Opposition side, PH holds a trump card with 88 MPs. When it comes to the crunch, Warisan’s eight and Pejuang’s four MPs could play a key role. In the earlier count against Mahiaddin, there were potentially 120 MPs that could have voted against his PN government.

Changed political landscape

Coalition politics in Malaysia has been changing and has become increasingly fluid after the Sheraton Move. With the fragmentation of Malay parties, the splintering of peninsular non-Malay parties and the rise of regional parties in Sarawak and Sabah, finding a minimum winning coalition in politics has become more complex.

The PN government was a patchwork of three Malay-based parties – Bersatu, Pas and Umno – with the kingmakers being the 18 MPs of the Sarawak parties in GPS. PN’s total of 114 MPs gave it a slim plurality above the 111 votes required for a simple majority in Parliament.  

East Malaysian politicians today have persisted in calling for the federal government to resolve the unsettled issues of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and to grant Sarawak and Sabah greater autonomy.

The settling of these demands to secure East Malaysian parliamentary seats may be even more important than giving cabinet and other posts to MPs from Sabah and Sarawak.

The new PM’s key test is whether he will be able to fix Umno’s broken politics while not genuflecting to party president Zahid Hamidi and former president Najib Razak, who still have political clout. Would not the infamous two demand their pound of flesh? What form will this take – quashing their criminal charges in court?

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Malaysia’s political terrain of multi-party politics and fluid party alignments has shown that small third parties could become kingmakers. To compound matters, party defections (“hopping” or “frogging”) have become an endemic feature of politics.

The laudable move by former speaker Azalina Othman to table a private member’s bill to recall defecting MPs may not see the light of day.

In short, the stable two-coalition politics – which arguably saw the embedding of two strong coalitions, PH and Barisan Nasional – after the 2018 general election may be a thing of the past.

The next general election is due by 2023 but may be held earlier if the current ruling coalition collapses. Post-Sheraton Move parameters will not change significantly in the medium term: unstable ruling coalitions will persist.

Malaysian politics is crying out for a political rebirth that would see a truly generational shift of the political class and the emergence of new ethical and inclusive political leadership. Hopefully, the five million new voters in the next election could point the way forward.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
7 September 2021
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