KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - "If Barisan Nasional (BN) wins the Johor polls, GE15 will come soon," a mid-level politician told me, as we speculated on when Malaysia's 15th General Election would be held.
There's some logic in what he said.
Umno - arguably most of the party's leadership, including president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan and former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak - is hoping that a Barisan victory in the state polls would pressure Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob to call for GE15 soonest.
"The fact that Umno has had to trigger the Johor polls shows that the Prime Minister does not favour dissolving Parliament. But there is no guarantee that Ismail Sabri will seek dissolution even if Barisan wins big in Johor," an Umno insider told me.
He said all 191 Umno divisions - except those controlled by some ministers in the Ismail Sabri Cabinet - want GE15 as soon as yesterday.
Only a few divisions want the Bera MP to continue as Prime Minister until the Parliamentary term ends in July 2023.
"Some Umno ministers want to stay in power as long as they can because after GE15 there's no guarantee they'll be reappointed as ministers," the Umno insider explained.
"Why would an Umno vice president defy Umno's wishes?" I asked, referring to Ismail Sabri's position in the party.
"He is the Prime Minister," the Umno insider said simply, adding that this is the first time an Umno Prime Minister is not party president. "What the Umno president wants (GE15 soonest) is not what the Prime Minister from Umno wants. The PM wants to be PM as long as possible."
According to the Umno insider, the PM is not keen to dissolve Parliament as he prefers Umno party polls be held before GE15.
"The talk is that the Umno vice president is banking on the fact that with the PM post he could win the party president post," he said.
Umno polls was due last year but was postponed for 18 months as the party expected Parliament to be dissolved.
The polls will be held by December 2022.
The Umno insider doesn't expect Ahmad Zahid, who faces 87 corruption changes, to be persuaded to quit as Umno president.
"If you expect a verdict on his corruption cases to be out soon, it won't happen. Based on his trial dates, the earliest the hearing will end is in November this year," he said.
He added if Ismail Sabri wins the party president post, he would lead Umno in GE15.
"This means that he can select the party's candidates. If Ahmad Zahid remains president when Parliament is dissolved, he could drop Umno MPs, including those in the Cabinet who did not give him 'face' when they were in power," he said.
But can't Umno do to Ismail Sabri what it did to the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin when 15 party MPs pulled their support from him, forcing the Pagoh MP to quit as PM in August last year?
The Umno insider explained that it wouldn't be easy.
He said even if 15 Umno MPs withdrew, Ismail Sabri had the backing of 90 MPs from Pakatan Harapan.
The Opposition coalition had earlier signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the PM that said, among others, Parliament would not be dissolved before August this year.
For the record, 116 government MPs back Ismail Sabri as PM: 42 from Barisan (comprising Umno 38, MCA two, MIC one and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah one), 51 from Perikatan Nasional (comprising Bersatu 32, PAS 18 and Sabah Star one), 18 from Gabungan Parti Sarawak, one from Parti Bersatu Sabah, and four independent MPs. The PM needs 111 MPs out of 220 (two seats are vacant) to have a simple majority.
However, a tycoon with close ties to Umno disagrees that Umno MPs can't bring down the PM.
"These are the same politicians who brought down two Prime Ministers," he said, referring to the fall of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2020 and Muhyiddin in 2021.
"If it is a poker game, these politicians hold a royal flush. They could use that to question whether the Prime Minister has legitimate power after some Umno MPs pull their support from him," he said.
Going back to my chat with the mid-level politician, he continued to speculate: "If the PM doesn't dissolve Parliament after Barisan wins in the Johor polls, then Umno will trigger state polls in Perak or Kedah."
His speculation is plausible.
But the other script Umno can play is to propose a motion in its 2021 annual general assembly next month for delegates to decide whether they want GE15 as soon as possible.
"If the delegates decide that they want the General Election to be held soonest, will the PM listen to them?" the Umno insider wondered aloud.
Answering his own question, he said, "The PM could ask the party to allow him to dissolve Parliament after the MOU ends in July 2022.
"After the MOU, Ismail Sabri would not have the support of the 90 Pakatan MPs, and he might not be able to hold on to power. It would then depend whether as PM he could garner support from a minimum of 111 MPs," he said.
When GE15 will be held is like a political tug of war.
The pull to dissolve Parliament comes from most Umno leaders and members. It could also come from Perikatan, led by Muhyiddin, who might withdraw support from Ismail Sabri as the relationship between Bersatu and Umno worsens. Pakatan too could pull the plug if it stopped supporting the MOU.
But Malaysian politics is too transactional. The politicians that might hold onto the tug-of-war rope for the PM are from Umno itself, as well as Perikatan and Pakatan. When Parliament is dissolved will depend on how hard both sides pull the rope.
One of the big questions in Malaysian politics is, which will come first, Umno polls or GE15?
- The writer is a columnist with the paper. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.