KUALA LUMPUR - Umno proposed on Thursday (April 14) that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob continue leading Malaysia if it wins the next general election, which is expected later this year.
But its Supreme Council also affirmed the resolution adopted at the party's general assembly last month, that internal leadership contests would be held only six months after Malaysia's 15th general election (GE15).
This effectively ensures that Zahid Hamidi remains party president when the poll is called and will have final say over Umno's candidates.
"Umno's Supreme Council unanimously suggested Datuk Seri Ismail as prime minister candidate for the upcoming 15th general election," secretary-general Ahmad Maslan said in a single page statement after a meeting of the party's top decision-making body.
Chaired by Zahid, the meeting also resolved not to extend a confidence-and-supply agreement (CSA) with the opposition, under which Mr Ismail pledged not to dissolve Parliament before August.
Although GE15 need be held only by September next year, this decision likely brings the timeline to the second half of 2022.
By then, Mr Ismail would have been in power for only a year. Hence, brokering a deal within his party, where he is only the third highest-ranking official, would have been crucial for him to avoid being the country's shortest-serving premier.
However, a top Umno official told The Straits Times that the Supreme Council, largely made up of Zahid loyalists, was "simply ensuring an election happens immediately after July" and that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional contests it without being encumbered by any other pacts.
"As we saw in Johor, Umno proposed incumbent chief minister Hasni Mohammad but eventually we ended up with a different leader. Giving Ismail the party's backing blocks any deal with other parties that may interfere with our decision-making," the source said.
Supreme Council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman also told reporters after the meeting that "there is no guarantee."
"This is politics you know, I'm afraid the day after the election there will be another person that wants to be the prime minister," he said.
Mr Ismail's rise to power since 2020 has been meteoric but also born out of unique circumstances that had seen him increasingly hemmed in from all sides since the turn of the year.
Not only is the Umno vice-president facing pressure from his own party to call for an election as soon as possible, the largest coalition backing his awkwardly assembled government - Perikatan Nasional (PN) - is also demanding more influence in policy-making for supporting his leadership.
Mr Ismail needs the backing of PN to remain as premier, but at the same time he cannot afford to ignore growing calls from Zahid's faction to hold a snap poll as thumping wins in the recent Melaka and Johor state elections point to Umno reclaiming its traditional dominance of Malaysian politics instead of having to share the spoils of power.
In the past 26 months, Mr Ismail has gone from opposition lawmaker, to senior minister, deputy premier and now the nation's leader simply by being the only acceptable compromise as his party's top-ranking government official.
But, just like his predecessor, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Mr Ismail is in charge only by virtue of a slim majority, with his government made up of 114 MPs in the 222-strong Parliament where two seats are vacant.
This has meant that practically every party cobbled to form the government - or even factions in these parties - could topple it by walking out if not for the CSA with the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Harapan.
The accord with the main opposition pact was inked in September as Mr Ismail wanted to avoid the fate of his predecessor who was ousted after Zahid and ex-premier Najib Razak led over a dozen Umno MPs in withdrawing support for him after just 18 months in office. Mr Muhyiddin, who is president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), claims he was removed due to his refusal to interfere in court proceedings against the duo who are facing a multitude of graft charges.
While the CSA significantly reduced the leverage Zahid and Najib - who has a final appeal left against a conviction linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), aside from other cases related to the scandal - had over Mr Ismail, their agitation to dissolve Parliament has predictably grown louder as the clock winds down on the deal, while their corruption trials continue to progress.
Stating upfront that Mr Ismail is the PM candidate would also strategically imply that an Umno prime minister will not be someone with criminal charges hanging over his head.
Party leaders and their advisers have told The Straits Times that with Najib unable to defend his parliamentary seat if his conviction is upheld, some are advocating that Zahid should follow suit as a guarantee to voters that an Umno premier will not be someone facing trial.
Said a party source: "There are a group of leaders who are in neither Ismail nor Zahid's faction, but seeing how PN and PH continue to harp on 1MDB and corruption, they know that Umno's chances will be instantly buoyed if it can undercut this narrative."