Malaysia’s king on Friday appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob the country’s new prime minister, returning a member of the corruption-mired United Malays National Organization to the top job three years after Malaysians voted the party out of office.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said Ismail Sabri had secured the support of 114 of the 220 sitting members of the House of Representatives. He replaces Muhyiddin Yassin, whom he served as deputy prime minister and who resigned Monday after conceding that he had lost majority support in parliament.
Muhyiddin was appointed prime minister by the king in February 2020 after helping engineer the collapse of the coalition government that beat UMNO at the polls in 2018. But his Bersatu party’s own coalition with UMNO was fragile from the start, with some members of the larger UMNO bristling at playing a junior role in the alliance.
“UMNO engineered the collapse of the previous government and now they are reaping the rewards of the position of the prime minister,” said Adib Zalkapli, Malaysia analyst for consulting firm Bower Group Asia.
But as Malaysia’s third prime minister in as many years, analysts say Ismail Sabri’s coalition, comprising the same mix of parties as the last, will likely prove just as shaky.
“In the Malaysian context, it’s basically the status quo,” Adib said.
Wong Chin Huat, a political analyst and professor at Malaysia’s Sunway University, is also expecting a short run for the new prime minister.
“Pressure will be mounted on him to have an election once the [pandemic] situation improves. But his power base may be challenged even before then because his coalition enjoys only 52% majority in the House and is very fragmented by parties as well as factions,” he said.
Elections are due by 2023 but could be called sooner. The king ruled out elections to choose Muhyiddin’s immediate successor as a precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.
The country of 32 million is suffering the highest rate of new daily COVID-19 cases per 1 million people in Southeast Asia. It recorded 178 deaths on Thursday and a record 22,948 new cases, pushing the country’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic up to nearly 1.5 million.
Public anger at the government’s pandemic response has been mounting with the rising caseload. But with the same parties running the government, Adib said Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet was also likely to bear some similarities to Muhyiddin’s, promising little change in policy.
“Very likely we will see some of the similar faces — whether they did well or not so well — who will be back. So, I think there will be continuity as far as the management of the pandemic is concerned,” he said.
Days before resigning, in a last-ditch effort to cling to power, Muhyiddin offered to push through a list of political and economic reforms opposition parties have been calling for in exchange for their support but failed.
Wong said the offer came too late and seemed insincere, but added he would be looking to see if Ismail Sabri picks up on some of the proposals in order to woo opposition lawmakers and hedge against the threat of those in his own coalition who might pull out.
He and Adib said having UMNO back in the prime minister’s seat was also raising concerns that the corruption cases opened against party heavyweights over the past three years may be dropped or stymied.
A number of senior UMNO officials including former Prime Minister Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are facing dozens of charges. Najib was convicted on seven charges and sentenced to 12 years in jail in July 2020 but remains out on bail and in Parliament while appealing the decision. He and the others deny any wrongdoing and claim the cases are politically motivated.
The day he announced his resignation, Muhyiddin blamed his coalition’s collapse on his refusal to “compromise with kleptocrats.” He did not name anyone, but the remarks were seen as a dig at some UMNO members; some of them, Najib and Ahmed Zahid included, publicly pulled their support for Muhyiddin weeks earlier.
“It’s definitely something that everyone is talking about, whether the cases will continue or not,” Adib said.
“Partly people do not believe that the judiciary, while it has been improved, has become totally independent,” Wong added.
The professor said reforming the Attorney General’s Chambers, which oversee prosecutions, could prove “low-lying fruit” for Ismail, a relatively easy way to both shore up support with power-players within his coalition who want to see the corruption cases through and voters who rejected UMNO at the polls.
“For Ismail Sabri, to strike a delicate balance within his coalition and also to demonstrate to the public he can deliver something, embarking on the AGC reform is the most important thing,” he said.