Dennis Ignatius: Who will be the next prime minister?

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If we have to resign ourselves to UMNO returning to Putrajaya, it would be nice if Tok Mat was at the helm.

UMNO president Zahid Hamidi declared at the recently concluded UMNO general assembly that he has accepted that it is not his fate to become prime minister, but he was coy about who he would support for the job. He took credit for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s appointment as prime minister following Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation in August last year and hinted that Ismail Sabri could remain as prime minister. At the same time, he quipped that perhaps fate might intend for UMNO deputy president Tok Mat (Mohamad Hasan) to assume the top job. For good measure, Zahid also cryptically remarked that Najib Tun Razak too was reconciled to not becoming prime minister again.

In other words, the ever-wily Zahid was keeping all his options open. What is certain, however, is that an intense power struggle is playing out behind the scenes with all three men – Zahid, Ismail and Tok Mat – jockeying for the top job. Zahid is as ambitious as they come; few believe him when he says he has taken himself out of the running.

The slew of criminal charges against him, however, is a drag on his ambitions. His enemies within UMNO (and they are not few) are using it against him, insisting that anyone facing 47 charges for criminal breach of trust, corruption and money laundering is surely not the right person to lead the country. Indeed, he should have stepped down a long time ago.

Those charges also make Zahid a desperate man. Former prime minister Najib Tun Razak’s conviction shocked and terrified those who once thought themselves untouchable. Najib might hope for a pardon; it is unlikely that Zahid will be that fortunate. His best hope is to quickly recapture Putrajaya and rejig the system in his favour. With the right man as attorney-general, all sorts of creative options might be possible.

Buoyed by the party’s performance in recent state elections (which he and Najib engineered), Zahid is now pushing hard for an early general election.

One man, however, stands in his way: Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, as only the prime minister gets to advise the Istana when to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections. Thus far, Ismail Sabri has had little incentive to do so. He is not party president; once parliament is dissolved, he will lose all his leverage. As president, it is Zahid who will call all the shots, including selecting the next prime minister if he himself cannot take the post.

Faced with this stalemate, sources suggest that one option under consideration is a deal that would allow Ismail Sabri to be the party’s candidate for prime minister after GE15 while Zahid remains as party chief. As party chief, he will still be in a commanding position to dictate policies and appointments, the power behind the throne so to speak. Of course, Ismail Sabri would have to be more sympathetic to the court cluster in return.

The big question is whether they can trust each other. No one expects Zahid to just give up notwithstanding the charges against him. There is also bad blood between Ismail Sabri and Zahid. Several sources say the prime minister is still smarting from the discourteous way he has been treated; a video of Zahid rudely pushing Ismail Sabri aside to make way for Najib went viral.

But Ismail Sabri’s options are also limited. He can continue to rely on Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional to prop up his government in defiance of his party, but that would do irreparable harm to his standing within the party. More crucially, the term of the current parliament will expire in July next year; after that, Ismail Sabri will have no more cards to play and his career will be as good as over. Given these circumstances, he might well opt to reach some kind of deal with Zahid.

If it happens, Tok Mat will be left out in the cold and that would be a real tragedy. Tok Mat is one of the few remaining UMNO leaders untouched by scandal or corruption. His calm demeanour and his moderate and inclusive approach to politics would serve Malaysia well, especially at this time when the nation is divided and in need of a steady hand. If we have to resign ourselves to UMNO returning to Putrajaya, it would be nice if Tok Mat was at the helm.

For some, UMNO’s return would be an unmitigated disaster; many more will probably shrug their shoulders and hope for a return to normalcy. Malaysians, after all, have never had high expectations of their government; why should it be any different this time around? – Dennis Ignatius