Ahead of Parliament session, PM looks to be working well with opposition but Umno faction could herald trouble
KUALA LUMPUR – Unlike ousted leader Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who faced stiff opposition in the Dewan Rakyat, a political observer foresees newly minted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob enjoying an easier time in the lower House.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said this “honeymoon” period for Bera MP Ismail Sabri will not last long once political expediency or pressure from other factions within the ruling administration come into play.
“After what has been revealed over the past few days, that Ismail Sabri is going to table all these wonderful-sounding reform proposals for parliamentary and political reforms, it looks like both sides are happily talking to each other.
“I frankly think they are in their honeymoon period. The opposition thinks it can push through with the reforms, but I think this will be a short-lived honeymoon,” Oh told The Vibes.
Last Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office had issued a statement outlining Ismail Sabri’s plan to reform the political landscape to ensure political stability while Putrajaya continues to address Covid-19 and the resulting economic backlash.
The seven reforms are:
1. Tabling an anti-hopping bill in Parliament;
2. Implementing Undi18 to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 in the near future, and tabling relevant amendments to the federal constitution in Parliament;
3. Amending the constitution to limit the tenure of the prime minister to 10 years;
4. Ensuring balanced representation from the government and opposition in parliamentary Special Select Committees;
5. Ensuring all bills to be presented in Parliament, including the federal Budget, are negotiated and agreed upon by all parties;
6. Including opposition MPs in the National Recovery Council to obtain their views and recommendations; and,
7. Providing the opposition leader with remuneration and facilities enjoyed by ministers.
Following his announcement, opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim voiced his support and welcomed the proposed reforms that he said were in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) 2018 election manifesto.
Early last year, the Sheraton Move had robbed PH of its opportunity to see its proposals through. Ismail Sabri’s proposals are similar to the ones Muhyiddin proposed days before he resigned.
The only difference is that the reforms and cooperation with PH were among the first things Ismail Sabri offered after taking office. Optics-wise, it is not seen as a last-ditch attempt to remain in power.
Unlike Muhyiddin’s attempts, the PH presidential council agreed to cooperate with the new prime minister. A memorandum of understanding will be signed by the new prime minister and PH leaders at 5pm today in the Parliament banquet hall.
However, Oh does not believe that this truce will last due to the political dynamics in the country, particularly the polarities between Umno’s Muafakat Nasional ally PAS and the more liberal opposition.
“Ismail Sabri will have to appease, at least temporarily, the mainstream faction in Umno. He must also appease the demands of an increasingly strident PAS, which is trying to push for legislation to control non-Islamic religions.
“This won’t go down so well with the opposition. Let’s see how long this honeymoon can last.”
Is Pakatan being played again?
Oh said that it looks like Anwar and PH are being played once again by the ruling coalition, seeing that they will barely get anything in return barring the proposed reforms, which Ismail Sabri has not provided an implementation timeline for.
Anwar, who was supposed to succeed seventh prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, lost his opportunity as a result of the Sheraton Move power grab late February last year.
I definitely think Anwar will be played again. By willingly submitting to this ‘cooperation’, he is essentially rendering the opposition inoperative.
“Imagine having the largest opposition bloc in the country, led by the official parliamentary opposition leader, willing to work with the government. That effectively means we essentially have no opposition in the country.
“Where are the checks and balances?” said Oh, adding that he is not in favour of this political cooperation.
However, PKR communications director Fahmi Fadzil told The Vibes that PH will remain steadfast as “His Majesty’s opposition”.
He added that the opposition coalition’s position is only to support the seven reforms proposed by Ismail Sabri and that it will engage in debate on other matters, and not blindly back the prime minister.
“We are not providing support all the way but we still remain His Majesty’s loyal opposition. Our function is to provide checks and balances, to critique, criticise and press for accountability. We won’t relinquish that role at all.
“We need to see Parliament function more robustly and be seen as separate from the executive,” said the Lembah Pantai MP.
Confidence vote dodged?
When asked whether Ismail Sabri will try to dodge the vote of confidence, as decreed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Oh believes that if no vote is raised in the Dewan Rakyat, the opposition itself will overlook the matter.
The academic also pointed out that Istana Negara itself has hinted that it will not press for the confidence vote, seeing how Law Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar claimed the king said there is no need for the prime minister to test his legitimacy in the Dewan Rakyat.
“Wan Junaidi said the king said no problem, no need for a vote of confidence, and the king, until today, has not refuted it. Ismail Sabri could ride on that (if someone raises the issue of derhaka) with him,” said Oh.
“On the confidence vote, I think the opposition will overlook it. In exchange, for example, Ismail Sabri will really push those so-called parliamentary and political reform proposals. In that sense, I don’t think the opposition will put up a lot of fight to disrupt things.
“And yes, because of that, Ismail Sabri will be able to ‘pull a Muhyiddin’ and avoid a confidence vote, but of course, he will do so at his own peril because his enemies are exactly the same as Muhyiddin’s, mainly the mainstream faction of his own party.”
Oh said the anti-Muhyiddin/Ismail Sabri faction could simply withdraw their support, similar to how they pulled the rug from under the Pagoh lawmaker not so long ago.
He added that he would not be surprised if the faction backing Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi would do that if they feel that Ismail Sabri has the ambition to take on his party leader for the president’s seat.
“I still think the main political struggle is within Umno itself and between the mainstream faction versus the Ismail Sabri faction.”
New speaker? And who will replace Azalina?
Another issue that has been bandied about in political circles is Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said’s successor, following her resignation as deputy speaker of the lower House.
It is a popular notion that the Pengerang MP’s resignation will lead to her replacing current Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun.
Azhar was appointed Dewan Rakyat speaker under the Muhyiddin administration, and has been roundly criticised, especially during the last sitting, with critics saying he did his best to protect the previous Perikatan Nasional regime.
There have been calls and motions from MPs to have him step down or sacked. The embattled speaker confirmed the matter and said the decision will be made by his deputy, Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon.
Seeing that Rashid has binned all motions to rid the lower House of Azhar, it now seems that Umno has scuttled its own plans of pushing Azalina for Azhar’s seat.
Instead, her party has named its secretary-general and Pontian MP Datuk Seri Ahmad Maslan as her successor for the position of deputy speaker.