Umno back in driver’s seat, but it remains to be seen if Ismail Sabri can hold on to steering wheel

Umno reclaims the top seat in Putrajaya as its vice-president will be sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister at Istana Negara tomorrow (2.30pm).

The announcement was made by Istana Negara this evening, following a meeting between the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah and the Malay rulers at Istana Negara.

Surprisingly missing from the meeting was the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar. His message on social media yesterday had set tongues wagging.

The other Malay rulers absent were Sultan of Kelantan, Sultan Muhammad V and Sultan of Perlis, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullail. Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin was represented Raja Muda Perlis, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Jamalullail.

Ismail Sabri secured support from 114 of the 220 MPs in Parliament and was handed the top job, in accordance with the Federal Constitution.

This, despite over 349,000 people signing the petition on Change.org, demanding that he not be made prime minister following, among others, his “mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Malaysia today recorded 23,564 new Covid-19 cases.

Born on Jan 18, 1960, in Temerloh, Pahang, Ismail Sabri started his career as a lawyer and had served as youth and sports minister (2008-2009), domestic trade, cooperatives and consumerism minister (2009-2013), agriculture and agro-based industry minister (2013-2015) and rural and regional development minister (2015-2018) during the Barisan Nasional era.

Following the fall of Pakatan Harapan, the Bera MP was made senior minister (defence) under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, which took over early last year.

The government, then led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, collapsed on Monday after Umno withdrew its support of PN and Muhyiddin.

Ironically, Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia had given its conditional support to Ismail Sabri’s nomination as prime minister, with the caveat that those facing criminal charges should not be given ministerial positions.

This made some within Umno jittery as Ismail Sabri could now be at the mercy of Muhyiddin, who is also Perikatan Nasional chairman.

This is the first time in the nation’s history where the prime minister is neither the party president nor the president of the governing coalition.

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is Umno president.

As Ismail Sabri celebrates his “win”, he must clear another hurdle as decreed by the Agong – by going through a vote of confidence in Parliament.

Also on the minds of many, is whether Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet will be as bloated as before, and if he would be “forced” to place a key Bersatu leader as his deputy.

Despite being tagged “Kerajaan Gagal”, the same faces could return to the Cabinet, under the pretext of ensuring continuity in rolling out initiatives and plans. Some of the Bersatu MPs could also jump ship and join Umno.

It remains unclear if changes would be seen in government-linked companies and key government positions – including the Attorney-General and Dewan Rakyat Speaker.

Ismail Sabri would also need to quickly correct the trust deficit among the rakyat, lower Covid-19 cases, rejuvenate the economy, and ensure that the country is ready for the 15th General Election, which is supposed to be held within the next two years.

With a wafer-thin majority and possibly facing the same hurdles as Muhyiddin did throughout his short-lived tenure as prime minister, it will not be a walk in the park for Ismail Sabri and Co.