UMNO Says Will Return to Power, as Malaysian Lawmakers Rush to Name PM

Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-08-17
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UMNO Says Will Return to Power, as Malaysian Lawmakers Rush to Name PM Party leaders from the Pakatan Harapan coalition flank Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (center) as he addresses media after they met with the king, in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 17.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

UMNO is claiming it has enough support to return to power, as MPs rush to give the king their private pledges of whom they back to be Malaysia’s ninth prime minister by a Wednesday afternoon deadline.

Hours after the king on Tuesday set a 24-hour deadline for lawmakers to submit signed declarations, the scandal-tainted party that ruled Malaysia for decades said it had secured majority support for Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the United Malays National Organization vice president and former deputy prime minister.

Although the king had said MPs should keep their nominees’ names private, UMNO’s secretary-general said his party, along with another coalition, had decided on Ismail as their PM candidate.

“Only one name will be sent in by UMNO/BN as Prime Minister candidate – Ismail Sabri Yaakob,” Ahmad Maslan said on Twitter, referring to a coalition called Barisan Nasional.

UMNO Supreme Council member Armand Azha Abu Hanifah revealed more details.

He said 115 lawmakers would pick Ismail as their choice, after an agreement with almost all parties who were part of the coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin until he resigned as prime minister on Monday.

“We have 40 today. All have signed the statutory declarations. One more …will do so tomorrow [Wednesday],” Abu Hanifah told BenarNews soon after 12 a.m. on Wednesday, referring to the number of UMNO lawmakers who were backing Ismail.

“The rest – Bersatu – all of their MPs, PAS and GPS are also gave their support. All have signed their SDs [statutory declarations],” he said.

ISMAIL-2.jpeg

Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaks during an interview on TV1's Selamat Pagi Malaysia program, at Radio Television Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, March 2, 2021. [Photo courtesy Ismail Sabri Yaakob via Facebook]

Muhyiddin’s 17-month old controversial reign came to an end after UMNO – the largest party in the now-former ruling bloc – said in July that 15 of its lawmakers had pulled parliamentary support for the PM.

Although UMNO was in a coalition with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu, the two parties had a fractious relationship. UMNO had threatened to withdraw backing to Muhyiddin several times. UMNO complained that it did not have influence in governance despite having a majority of lawmakers in the coalition.

Now, UMNO claims it has support for Ismail from Bersatu. Muhyiddin had, in fact, relied on UMNO’s backing to receive the king’s support to take over as prime minister in March 2020, days after Mahathir Mohamad resigned as PM.

Of 220 lawmakers in the lower house, UMNO has 38, Bersatu has 31, and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) have 18 each. An additional 10 lawmakers – including 4 independents and 6 from smaller parties – have also agreed to back Ismail, bringing the total number of MPs supporting him to 115, Abu Hanifah said.

Malaysia’s parliament has 222 seats, two of which are vacant after the deaths of MPs. That means a candidate needs the backing of 111 of 220 lawmakers to show majority support.

King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah set the Wednesday deadline for PM nominations, lower house Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun said after the monarch held a meeting with all the main parties early on Tuesday.

The king had ruled out fresh elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with no clear successor to Muhyiddin it fell to the monarch to pick a leader who commands majority support.

The speaker’s notice to lawmakers said the king had instructed them to keep their PM candidates’ choices confidential.

Other potential contenders

Before UMNO made its announcement, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was said to be a top contender for the post of PM. UMNO lawmaker and former senior foreign minister Hishamuddin Hussein and veteran UMNO MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah were also seen as contenders for the post.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat, however, had said Anwar’s chances were slim because he would not have been able to muster majority support.

Besides, “UMNO believes that the prime minister post is theirs,” Wong told BenarNews.

“Anyone who backs a non-UMNO prime minister will be punished harshly.”

Anwar has often been referred to as the “prime minister in waiting.” Last October, he claimed that he had majority support to form the government, a little over three months after Mahathir resigned. Mahathir had promised to transfer power to Anwar within two years, but infighting in the bloc’s ranks caused the government to collapse.

Another analyst, Jeniri Amir, senior fellow at the National Professors Council, warned that a slim majority in favor of any candidate would only lead to more uncertainty and attempts at destabilizing the government.

The best way out is through a general election, he said.

“It’s just 20 more months, let’s just be patient. There’s no need to be so engrossed in wanting power,” Jeniri said, referring to national polls scheduled for 2023.

The king did not set a timeline for naming the new prime minister, but analysts said they expected it will be this week.

If Ismail is named PM, the Malay-centric UMNO will be back in power a little over three years after being routed in elections for the first time in the country’s independent history, by Mahathir and Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Local media describe Ismail as having wide experience in politics and governance. He was defense minister under Muhyiddin, who elevated him to be his deputy last month. He was named leader of the opposition after UMNO lost power in 2018.

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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