Dennis Ignatius: Will Ismail Sabri’s government survive?

Ismail Sabri will almost certainly consolidate his party’s position, tighten its grip on all the levers of power and use every means at his disposal to restore the hegemonic system that was in place until GE14.

Dennis Ignatius

So, Ismail Sabri Yaakob – a man who until recently was on nobody’s list to become prime minister – has now emerged as the winner in Malaysia’s game of thrones contest. When it comes to who gets to be prime minister, those words in Article 43(2) – someone who is likely to command the support of the majority of members in the House – must necessarily carry more weight than what the majority of Malaysians might wish for. That’s the Constitution and we have to live with it. It’s futile, dangerous even, to expect the King to act in any other way.

The question now is whether Ismail Sabri’s government will prove more stable than the previous one. It might just be, barring any major missteps.

First, it is unlikely that any of the 114 members of parliament who indicated their support for him will change their position. They would be seen as duplicitous and disrespectful of the King.

Second, the UMNO court cluster, which caused former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin no end of problems, has been neutralised. It will be difficult for them to go against what is after all an UMNO-led government without coming across as self-serving. Ismail Sabri’s appointment also marks the beginning of the end of UMNO president Zahid Hamidi’s political career. Ismail Sabri will, no doubt, use the power of the prime minister’s office to quickly consolidate his position within UMNO. All the court cluster can hope for now is some sort of a deal that would minimise their exposure to all the criminal charges they are facing in exchange for fading into the sunset.

Muhyiddin too has little room to manoeuvre. He recently hinted that his party’s support for Ismail Sabri is conditional on the latter keeping the court cluster out. Revenge may be sweet, but he is simply posturing. The reality is that neither he nor Zahid is in any position to threaten Ismail Sabri; both the Malay rulers and the people will not stand for another attempt at regime change.

This also applies to the Opposition. They had an opportunity to make a deal with Muhyiddin – significant reforms in exchange for a confidence and supply agreement – but they rejected it. Anwar apparently refused to consider it because he felt sure that he had the numbers this time around. It was a huge strategic blunder. The Opposition will have to live with the consequences and the knowledge that they facilitated UMNO’s return to power. In the meantime, there can be no more talk of trying to overthrow the government at least for now.

Anwar’s failure yet again to win support to become prime minister must surely call into question his continued leadership of both his party and the opposition coalition. Clearly, the Opposition has lost its way and voters have lost faith in them. If the Opposition is to regain the momentum, a new leadership team must be put in place as soon as possible. The priority now must be GE15.

Whether Ismail Sabri will prove to be a more competent administrator is another issue. For one thing, he was Muhyiddin’s point man on the pandemic, and he made a mess of it. If he is smart, he will bring in a new team headed by someone with real credibility and turn it over to the professionals. Likewise with the economy; bring in a team of credible industry leaders and economists to help turn the economy around. These are the two issues of immediate concern to Malaysians, and they will judge him by it. Beyond that, he would need to keep the racial and religious rhetoric down and stop the crackdown on dissenters.

If he can manage all that, don’t be surprised if he goes on to win another term come GE15. Malaysians, after all, have short memories as Dr Mahathir can attest. Besides, after the last few years of upheaval and chaos, voters long for normalcy again.

The real worry is that UMNO will now go all out to ensure that it will never lose another election. Ismail Sabri will almost certainly consolidate his party’s position, tighten its grip on all the levers of power and use every means at his disposal to restore the hegemonic system that was in place until GE14. They will not be taken by surprise again. Malaysia is not likely to experience another election tsunami again for quite a while.