Malaysia PM hunt focuses on UMNO’s Ismail and opposition’s Anwar

Party beaten in 2018 election eyes comeback; king insists on confidence vote

KUALA LUMPUR — The search for Malaysia’s next prime minister appears to have narrowed to two leading candidates — Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Anwar Ibrahim — with the former widely believed to have the edge.

Ismail, who served as deputy prime minister in the Muhyiddin Yassin-led government before its collapse on Monday, has overcome a rift within his own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to secure the party’s full support. If he prevails, the appointment of an UMNO prime minister would mark a dramatic reversal of the 2018 general election, when parties spearheaded by Mahathir Mohamad ended the scandal-tainted UMNO coalition’s until-then uninterrupted run in power.

All eyes are now on the palace after a 4 p.m. Wednesday deadline for the lower house’s current 220 lawmakers to submit their preferred candidate to King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin by fax, email or WhatsApp.

The National Palace in Kuala Lumpur: Lawmakers have until 4 p.m. local time on Aug. 18 to submit their prime minister picks to the king. © Reuters

Ismail’s consistent support of Muhyiddin had put him at odds with UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, but party members resolved their differences on Tuesday and settled on him as their single premier candidate. “There were some names proposed by the party president but the majority wanted Ismail,” a source in UMNO told Nikkei Asia.

The party has 38 lower house representatives and indirectly controls three others through the National Front coalition. With all those lawmakers in his corner, Ismail looks to be the favorite to become Malaysia’s ninth prime minister as long as other parties that supported Muhyiddin also stand by him.

The king has publicly stressed that the relentless political instability threatens the country’s fight against COVID-19, and that a stable government should be formed as soon as possible. The palace has also declared that the choice of prime minister should face a confidence vote in parliament to ensure legitimacy. The king is expected to meet with his fellow Malay state rulers on Friday to discuss the situation as well.

In Malaysia’s notoriously unpredictable politics, there is still a chance of a twist.

Anwar, who has long sought the prime minister’s job, has the backing of his opposition Hope Pact coalition — comprising his People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the National Honest Party.

But at last count, Anwar was backed by 105 lawmakers — seven short of a simple majority in the 222-seat house, where two spots are vacant. After the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) signaled on Wednesday that all 18 of its lawmakers would also support Ismail, Anwar’s hopes for making up the difference appear to hinge on the Sarawak Parties Coalition (GPS), a Bornean regional party that controls 18 seats.

Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob spoke at a press conference on the development of the Recovery Movement Control Order at Wisma Pertahanan Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) on Oct 2020.–fotoBERNAMA (2020) COPYRIGHTS RESERVED

At 74, Anwar has had a rocky political career, including minister posts as well as what many believe were trumped-up sodomy allegations and imprisonment. This is his fourth attempt to become prime minister since 1998.

Standing in his way now looks to be Ismail, 61. A lawyer by education, Ismail has held one federal portfolio or another since becoming youth and sports minister in 2008, barring a short spell in the opposition from 2018 to 2020. He also served as the parliament’s opposition leader for a year.

Throughout his 17 months in office, Muhyiddin was under constant pressure to prove his majority in parliament while UMNO leaders threatened time and again to withdraw their support from the ruling coalition. The 74-year-old quit after admitting last week he no longer had a majority.

The king, a constitutional monarch, met party leaders on Tuesday.

After the meeting Anwar told reporters that the king had emphasised the country was facing a political and constitutional crisis.

“By the look of it, all the parties seem to have come to a consensus — that is to end ‘old politics’… and focus on the development of the country,” he added. The country’s 222 members of parliament have until 4pm (08:00 GMT) to notify the king of their choice. It is not clear whether there will be a vote of confidence in parliament to confirm whoever is chosen as the new prime minister.

‘Solution not problem’

Ismail, who served in the UMNO-led government that was rejected by voters in the May 2018 elections, was among a number of senior UMNO politicians who remained with Muhyiddin despite the party’s threats of withdrawal.

He was also the face of the administration’s coronavirus response – giving daily updates on arrests of those violating health rules and revisions to lockdown and quarantine rules.

In September last year he said there was no need for politicians and their entourages returning from election campaigns in Sabah to quarantine. The election helped seed an outbreak that Malaysia is still struggling to control.

Veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was among party leaders who met the king on Tuesday Members of parliament have until 4pm to name their choice for next prime minister [Arif Kartono/AFP]

The Malaysian Health Coalition, a group of health societies and prominent professionals, called on the next administration to make curbing the pandemic a priority. The government should appoint “competent professionals” to handle the COVID-19 response, improve transparency and frame policy decisions on scientific evidence, it said.

The country reported 19,631 new cases on Tuesday bringing the total caseload to 1.44 million. An additional 293 people died.

“The rakyat (people) and the health system are increasingly exhausted,” the Malaysian Health Coalition said in a statement. “Politicians must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic has prompted increasing discontent in Malaysia. Junior doctors walked off the job on July 26 and there was a rare protest in Kuala Lumpur five days later. Another is expected later this month.

After police questioned participants and commissioners from Suhakam, Malaysia’s human rights commission, who were monitoring the rally, human rights groups say the next government must move to restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly.

“The government has responded to a wave of public anger brought about by political infighting and official handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by curtailing free speech,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Malaysia researcher for Amnesty International said in a statement. “In recent weeks this also extended to peaceful assembly. Amid an ongoing political crisis, the authorities have wielded repressive laws to investigate or arrest not only activists, journalists and protesters but also members of the political opposition and the general public to quell dissent. It is crucial that the next government learns from the past and ends attacks on peaceful critics.”

Police have also questioned the 107 members of parliament who tried to march to parliament on August 2 after the first session in months was closed down because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The group, including Anwar and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was met by riot police.


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