Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on August 21, marking his party’s return to power just three years after it lost federal power for the first time since the country’s independence.
Ismail Sabri is the country’s third premier since the historic 2018 elections, when the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition was voted out of power for the first time in 61 years.
However, prolonged political uncertainty that followed the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government early last year finally resulted in Umno returning to assume the post of prime minister.
Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah presided over Ismail Sabri’s oath-taking at 2:30pm (0630 GMT) on August 21, five days after the latter’s predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin resigned as prime minister following a loss of parliamentary majority.
Ismail Sabri, similar to Muhyiddin, will lead the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition with a slim majority until Malaysia recovers from its current Covid-19 crisis and a general election can be called. He has the support of 114 out of 220 sitting members of Parliament (MP) against 105 seats controlled by the opposition.
Another senior Umno MP, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, abstained from supporting Ismail Sabri.
Malaysia’s Lower House has 222 seats, but two seats remain vacant following the death of the incumbents, with a by-election not being called so far due to the persistently high number of Covid-19 cases.
Ismail Sabri’s immediate task would be focused on recovering Malaysia from its current Covid-19 and economic crises. Much of the country’s businesses have been shut since May to stem an outbreak of infections that had only gotten worse despite months of lockdown.
Malaysia recorded 22,262 new Covid-19 infections on August 21 – the fourth straight day infections have been above 20,000.
Malaysia however has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and Muhyiddin previously said that the country expects to reopen much of its economy by October this year.
Some restrictions were loosened by Muhyiddin in his last days in office both as Prime Minister and caretaker Prime Minister, including allowing dine-in facilities for fully vaccinated individuals.
The outgoing premier has said that his party backed Ismail Sabri to ensure continuity to the policies of the previous administration.
Leading a loose coalition, Ismail Sabri also has to select a Cabinet line-up that would keep at least seven parties happy.
Former Cabinet Minister Annuar Musa, who is also from Ismail Sabri’s party, on August 21 said the cabinet lineup is unlikely to change drastically from Muhyiddin’s administration.
Ismail Sabri, 61, is the MP for the Bera ward in Pahang. He is in his fourth term as MP, and has served as a Cabinet minister for 10 years between 2008 and 2018 during Umno’s rule.
He became Umno vice-president following the party’s shock loss at 2018 polls, and also became opposition leader in the following year. However, he was appointed senior minister for security with the defence ministry portfolio under Muhyiddin’s PN administration after PH’s collapse early last year.
Last month, he was promoted to the post of deputy prime minister by Muhyiddin, before ascending to the country’s top post last week.
Ismail Sabri’s appointment has received mixed response among opposition politicians.
Ismail Sabri won the race ahead of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who earlier on August 21 urged his supporters to redirect their focus on Malaysia’s 15th general election which has to be held by 2023.
Shafie Apdal, who leads Sabah-based opposition party Warisan, on August 20 said he could have won majority support should he have been nominated for the post by the rest of the opposition bloc.
The bloc – including former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad – had united to back Anwar’s bid to bring him 105 votes, six short of a majority in Parliament. Shafie was among those who had backed Anwar.
Warisan youth chief Azis Jamman previously asked the bloc to support Shafie to become prime minister should Anwar fail to get majority support.
The Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Damansara MP Tony Pua meanwhile criticised his colleagues in the opposition for the role they played in pushing out Muhyiddin, which in turn handed power back to Umno.
“Getting kicked out of government in February 2020 was bad. But playing a major starring role in returning power to Umno? Devastating,” Pua wrote. His PH colleagues had agitated alongside a faction in Umno to weaken the Muhyiddin government.
Anwar’s PH, then led by Dr Mahathir, won federal power in 2018 while the former was still imprisoned on sodomy charges.
Anwar was subsequently released and pardoned, but the PH government collapsed due to defections before Dr Mahathir passed on the premiership to Anwar as per a pre-polls arrangement.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK