How Long Can Ismail Sabri Survive as PM? (Part 2)

The PM’s lack of knowledge and depth in these areas will cause him grief and troubles at some point.

Part 2 – The tough challenges for Ismail

Perhaps Ismail may qualify as the first post-presidential premier who accepts that the powers of the prime minister is limited and thus he has to work in a more collegial manner with his ministers and coalition partners while also treating the opposition fairly and with respect.

Dato’ Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob can sometimes be out of his depth in some critical policy areas such as the economy and international relations. The PM’s lack of knowledge and depth in these areas will cause him grief and troubles at some point.

Yet there is still some saving grace.

His strength perhaps lies in his easy-going and relaxed personality, compared to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s. Ismail is less prone to the psychological need to dominate and seems quite amenable to delegate work to his ministers.

There is now a Covid-19 Quartet Ministers Meeting involving Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein; Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin; Communications and Multimedia Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa, and Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz that has been given almost full powers to make calls on Covid-related issues.

But here is the catch, if the ministers, bureaucrats or advisors are lousy – and I would say half of the Cabinet seems to be in this category – when the going gets tough, the buck stops with the PM. So far, the Ismail government’s folly, inherited from Muhyiddin’s, is still felt by many people.

Out of the necessity not to accede to both Dato’ Seri Azmin Ali’s request to be deputy prime minister and Dato’s Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi & co’s proposed choices for ministers, Ismail reached out to Pakatan Harapan just as he was forming his cabinet.

After intense negotiations, an unprecedented memorandum of understanding (MoU) was inked between him representing the federal government and Pakatan Harapan on 13 September 2021.

Perhaps Ismail may qualify as the first post-presidential premier who accepts that the powers of the prime minister is limited and thus he has to work in a more collegial manner with his ministers and coalition partners while also treating the opposition fairly and with respect.   

However, the MoU does not guarantee Ismail’s survival. He will have to balance between satisfying the demands from the opposition and the blackmails and sabotages from his own rank, especially those from among UMNO. 

The UMNO quandary

UMNO’s election was postponed for 18 months from 30 June this year. Ismail will definitely attempt to win the presidency of UMNO. In the meantime, he needs to convince some of the 14 UMNO MPs who are still with Zahid & co. to support him.

Despite heavy court charges, there is no guarantee that Zahid will go to jail soon enough to make things easier for Ismail, especially when Zahid as UMNO President is baiting his time for Ismail to make disastrous mistakes.

Without removing Zahid as president, leaders like Ismail, Hishammuddin, Khairy and other UMNO ministers who are not aligned with the leadership may not be fielded as party candidates.

Before the fall of Muhyiddin, there were talks that the UMNO renegades led by Ismail, with the support of MCA and MIC, wanted to sack UMNO from Barisan Nasional. The plan was for these leaders to contest as BN’s direct candidates.

However, there is a fundamental difference among those within UMNO. While Ismail, Hishammuddin, Annuar Musa, etc. were willing to contest GE15 alongside Bersatu and PAS, many in the UMNO core leadership are determined to contest against at least Bersatu, if not PAS.

The problem for Ismail is that even if he is able to contest as BN’s direct candidate – by ejecting UMNO from BN in the event he fails to take over UMNO in the coming party polls – most of UMNO state leadership, especially those that control state governments such as Johor, Perak and Pahang, want to wipe out Bersatu altogether.

Even the UMNO leadership in Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah are not prepared to concede seats to their old rival PAS who are now in charge of government in these states.

PAS, knowing it has no hope of expanding into the peninsula’s west coast, wants to have a larger share of seats in the Malay-belt states.

The Ismail quagmire

Ismail knows that UMNO grassroots machinery is usually controlled by the division chiefs with guidance from the state leadership. There is a limit to what the central leadership could do during election campaigns even if Ismail takes charge of the UMNO brand.

If the state leadership, especially those that control state governments, are decidedly belligerent against Bersatu and PAS, there is very little the PM could do to prevent them from sabotaging.

Further, there will be up to 7.8 million new voters via Undi18 and automatic registration, if it is implemented soon. They will change the entire political landscape.

UMNO and PAS are mass-based parties that organise their membership strategically as voting blocs in critical constituencies while suppressing the votes of non-partisan. This won’t work anymore.

As the “one-party state” was defeated in 2018, voters are no longer afraid of  the powers-that-be. The Malays in general especially have begun to believe that they are the “boss” to politicians now.

Herein lies the challenges which confront Ismail.

The next general election could be a free-for-all contest with no party having an upper hand. Welcome to multi-party democracy.

The MOU stipulates that the government would not seek dissolution of parliament before 31 July 2022. I have since been asked many times about the possible dates for next general election.

As a matter of fact, the parliament is due for dissolution on 16 July 2023 and election must be held before or by 16 September 2023.

As something less serious, I would say that Malaysia’s accidental PM Ismail’s current life goal is to serve at least a day more than his predecessor.

Muhyiddin was in office for 534 days. Surely Ismail wants to avoid being “the shortest serving PM ever”. So, this could probably take us up to at least February 2023 for the next general election to be held.

A week is a long time in politics, said British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s. For us, it means no one can predict too much and too far into the future.

So far so good for the post-presidential PM. Though, unless the old-style BN politics of “government knows best” is changed with more consultation with the opposition, and done in a more transparent way, things won’t be so rosy for Ismail soon.

By : LIEW CHIN TONG – chintong.substack.com

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