PM Ismail resists Umno push for snap polls after Johor triumph

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is resisting calls to hold snap national polls. PHOTO: MALAYSIA PRIME MINISTER OFFICE
Umno president Zahid Hamidi (left) and Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad celebrating after the Umno-led Barisan Nasional's win in Johor on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: THE STAR

KUALA LUMPUR - Back-to-back landslide wins for Barisan Nasional (BN) at state elections have further fuelled momentum from its main component Umno to hold snap national polls as soon as possible so it can reclaim its dominance of Malaysia.

But Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is resisting such "hasty" calls, as the Umno vice-president, who ranks third in the hierarchy, needs to take control of the party first to ensure BN backs him to remain in power after the 15th general election.

After members of his own party heckled him with chants of "bubar, bubar (Malay for dissolve, dissolve) after the Johor election win late last Saturday (March 12), he shot back saying such a major decision to dissolve Parliament must be discussed by the wider leadership.

"The decision cannot be taken by a small group screaming for an election," he said on Sunday.

The Umno-led BN won a two-thirds majority in Johor, following on last November's sweep of three-quarters of the Melaka legislature.

This has emboldened the faction led by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his predecessor Najib Razak, which believes the time is right to reverse the party's first ever electoral defect in 2018 that ended six decades of its uninterrupted rule since independence.

Umno heads into an annual national meeting this weekend, where the question of when to head into national polls will likely take centre stage.

"It's the main question on everyone's mind," Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed told The Straits Times after the state chapter's handsome win. "I'm sure the general assembly will resolve that our PM must seek a dissolution as soon as possible."

At victory celebrations after Saturday's vote in Johor, Datuk Seri Ismail was practically a forgotten man, as Zahid praised former premier Najib's contributions instead.

But the euphoria could be premature for the derogatorily named "court cluster" - leaders such as Zahid and Najib who face graft charges, with the latter left with a final appeal against a 1MDB-related conviction. No other politicians seem keen on an early general election.

Already, leaders of the main opposition pact Pakatan Harapan (PH) are offering to extend a confidence and supply agreement (CSA) beyond the July expiry, in a bid to buy time to formulate a strategy to ensure BN does not win an outright majority at the next general election.

Mr Ismail has welcomed the suggestion to have a so-called MOU (memorandum of understanding) 2.0, after the first inked in September last year saw his government promise various democratic reforms in exchange for PH's support in parliamentary matters that concern the legitimacy of his government.

"What is important is the public interest, which is why I say it is not time yet for a general election," he said on Sunday.

Should the CSA be renewed, the court cluster would be unable to deprive him of a parliamentary majority simply by pulling support, a strategy it employed last August to remove Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Muhyiddin Yassin from power. BN has 41 MPs with about a third loyal to Zahid and Najib, while PH is 90-strong in the 222-seat Parliament, where two seats are currently vacant.

Eurasia Group's Asia director Peter Mumford told ST that "key to election timing is whether the Ismail-PH pact is extended, and if so, polls this year are unlikely".

Another remote possibility is that of parties opposed to BN putting aside their differences and cooperating. BN gained 38 per cent and 43 per cent of the vote in Melaka and Johor respectively, less than the combined tally of PH and the Muhyiddin-led Perikatan Nasional.

Such a development would give pause to Umno but appears unlikely, given the deep misgivings parties in both coalitions have for their counterparts.

Nonetheless, Democratic Action Party's Johor chief Liew Chin Tong, whose party contributes the most MPs to the Anwar Ibrahim-led PH, believes "without coalition effect among the opposition parties, Umno-BN, which is a singular entity dominated by Umno, won."

"The greater opposition needs to go back to the drawing board immediately. We must ask ourselves the hardest questions and make major changes in order to rise again from the ashes," he said in a note sent to ST.

What Umno’s win in the state means for Malaysia’s key leaders

Ismail Sabri Yaakob

Pretty much the forgotten man in Umno’s victory celebrations in Johor, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has faced calls to dissolve Parliament as party members are raring to restore Umno’s dominance in federal politics. 

But Datuk Seri Ismail, who ranks only third in the party hierarchy, could lose his position as prime minister after a general election unless he can wrest control of the party led by president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, with former premier Najib Razak still widely influential.

His fortunes may rest on whether he can hold off calling a general election, at least until November when he can contest and hope to triumph in party elections. 

In the meantime, he could try extending the current deal with the Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition, which states that Parliament cannot be dissolved before July 31.

Najib Razak

Former Malaysia prime minister Najib Razak in a file photo from 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS.

Aside from his 1Malaysia Development Berhad-related graft conviction, former prime minister Najib Razak’s comeback is truly on track. Not only has he been credited with spearheading the Umno-led Barisan Nasional’s landslide wins in the Johor and Melaka state elections, he continues to take on all comers with slick rhetoric over both traditional and social media.

Najib is unable to contest in a general election unless his conviction is overturned on appeal. But his importance to Umno will be cemented if the grand old party does come out tops in a general election on the back of his efforts. 

Muhyiddin Yassin

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is chief of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. PHOTO: MUHYIDDIN YASSIN/FACEBOOK

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, like Barisan Nasional, has also bet big on a former premier’s pull to win the hearts of voters.

But unlike Najib Razak, the PN chief has yet to taste an outright victory, at best sharing the spoils with Umno at the Sabah state polls in 2020, when he was still in power.

The Melaka and Johor polls have shown that while a significant number of Malay voters are with him, PN lacks enough pull with other ethnic groups to get to the tipping point in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system.

Mr Muhyiddin’s inability to break Umno’s stranglehold on Malay voters and the grip of Pakatan Harapan on Chinese voters leaves PN and him as possible bridesmaids at the next general election.

Anwar Ibrahim

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in a file photo from 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition are struggling to retain the support they enjoyed in 2018, when PH handed Barisan Nasional its first defeat in six decades. 

PH is still the single largest coalition in Parliament, with the highest number of MPs. But its poor showing in the Johor polls, with Datuk Seri Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) winning only one seat, does not bode well for PH’s chances at the next general election, nor for Mr Anwar’s political gravitas. 

His gamble in Johor – to contest under PKR’s flag instead of the PH emblem used by his coalition partners – fell flat and will now invite further scrutiny of his leadership.

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