Parliament sitting to test Malaysian PM Ismail’s grip on power

KUALA LUMPUR : Malaysia’s new parliamentary session that opens on Monday (Sept 13) will offer an immediate test of how stable Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s weeks-old government is.

The Umno vice-president’s administration is made up of the same parties and MPs as his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin, who stepped down in August after less than 18 months in the job, the shortest premiership in Malaysian history.

Datuk Seri Ismail inherited the slim majority and uneasy allies that had led to Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s downfall, and will be keenly watched for how differently he will navigate the political waters to stay in power.

Already, his government has backed away from tabling a confidence motion despite the King decreeing that the person appointed to succeed Mr Muhyiddin should affirm his legitimacy via such a vote in Parliament.

But Prime Minister Ismail will still face other votes, where anything short of 110 ayes out of the 220 sitting MPs could raise doubts over his leadership.

Potential trouble spots include the already-controversial appointment of a new Deputy Speaker and a possible move to oust existing Speaker Azhar Harun, who was widely accused of abusing parliamentary procedure to aid Mr Muhyiddin when he was in office.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's administration is made up of the same parties and MPs as his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s administration is made up of the same parties and MPs as his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Another vote to watch would be on the 12th Malaysia Plan, a crucial five-year development blueprint that has already been delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Ismail will try to signal that the worst of the Covid-19 and political crises is now behind Malaysia, and that the government is focusing on recovery,” risk analysts Eurasia Group’s Asia director Peter Mumford told The Straits Times.

“However, the risks of instability have not disappeared and they may limit how much substantive reform can be done before the next election.”

Mr Muhyiddin just about managed to get his budget passed in December. And then in January, as defecting Umno MPs put his majority in doubt, he declared a state of emergency. This effectively suspended Parliament and delayed the legislature’s usual annual reopening in March.

As soon as the emergency ended on Aug 1 however, more Umno lawmakers led by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pulled their support for Mr Muhyiddin, forcing his resignation a fortnight later.

In the weeks since taking office on Aug 21, Mr Ismail has been working on ensuring he is not held to ransom in the same way. He has even reached out across the aisle to Pakatan Harapan (PH) to secure the main opposition pact’s support until the next election, due by 2023, in exchange for a raft of institutional reforms.

PH said on Saturday it was “inclined” to accept the deal “conditional on detailed improvements”.

Clinching such a confidence-and-supply-agreement (CSA) will mean PH’s 88 lawmakers will not oppose Mr Ismail in votes that are considered to be tests of his majority, such as the budget to be tabled at the next parliamentary meeting on Oct 29.

This will bolster his government, which has 114 MPs in the 222-seat Parliament, of which two seats are vacant, and make it practically impossible for it to be toppled.

However, the Premier has hedged his bets by also trying to appease opposing camps in his ruling pact.

He retained most of the team appointed by Mr Muhyiddin, including 87 per cent of ministers and deputy ministers, and even handed Mr Muhyiddin the chair of the Covid-19 National Recovery Council (NRC). The former premier still leads the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, the largest grouping in government.

“Ismail seems to be playing safe instead of courting the opposition to back him,” political scientist Wong Chin Huat told The Straits Times, pointing to the pro-Muhyiddin appointments.

“But his nomination of Ahmad Maslan as Deputy Speaker suggests he may also be cutting a peace deal within Umno,” he added, referring to the Umno secretary-general who is loyal to party chief Zahid. Both Umno leaders currently face corruption charges.

While these deals potentially shore up his position, Mr Ismail is not out of the woods yet.

PH had on Saturday asked for more funds to be allocated to deal with the pandemic. It had also voiced second thoughts about a CSA, after Mr Ismail’s refusal to hold a confidence vote and Mr Muhyiddin’s elevation to NRC chief, which comes with ministerial privileges.

There was also disquiet over Mr Ismail’s offer to former premier Najib Razak, who is appealing against a graft conviction, to advise the government on the economy.

These developments threatened to make “a historic breakthrough in reaching a confidence-supply-reform accord… not be an achievable goal”, Democratic Action Party stalwart Lim Kit Siang, one of the opposition’s most influential figures, said on Friday.

By : Shannon Teoh – THE STRAITS TIMES

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