Ismail Sabri to become Malaysia’s next prime minister

If approved, Sabri’s appointment would mark UMNO’s return to the leadership three years after voters rejected him in historic polls.

Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, is on the cusp of forming the country’s next government after securing a parliamentary majority from the same coalition that collapsed earlier this week.

If approved, Ismail Sabri’s appointment would mark his return to the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party three years after it lost a general election amid public anger over corruption and the multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

Interim Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned earlier this week after acknowledging he had lost majority support, said on Thursday that his coalition government had unanimously supported the former deputy prime minister to ensure the continuation of policies on “COVID-19 response and national recovery” until the time was right to hold elections.

But he added in a statement that the support was conditional on Ismail Sabri giving guarantees that the new ministers were free from corruption charges.

Several UMNO politicians were indicted on corruption charges after their defeat in the 2018 election, the first time the party had lost power in Malaysia in 60 years.

UMNO secretary-general Ahmad Maslan said on Twitter that Ismail Sabri had the support of 114 of Parliament’s 222 members.

A decision on the new government leadership could be announced as early as Friday when King Sultan Abdullah meets with other senior members of the country’s royal family.

In Malaysia, the king’s role is largely ceremonial, but he can appoint as prime minister who he believes has the support of a majority in parliament. The king has already said candidates must prove their support in a vote of confidence in parliament.

In the 2018 general election, the Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned in February 2020 after the coalition collapsed due to a power grab within the ruling coalition. Remaining Pakatan members then aligned with Muhyiddin, UMNO, and the country’s Islamist party to form a fragile coalition of ethnic Malay parties, despite UMNO continuing to threaten to withdraw its support.

Ei Soon Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Ismail Sabri’s government may also be unstable.

He added that Malaysians would see Ismail Sabri’s appointment to the coalition as “just a game of musical chairs”. Sabri has also been the public face of the country’s widely criticised response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysia reported a record 22,948 daily infections on Thursday.

“Cabinet appointees are likely to be familiar faces and similar policies that have failed to contain the spread of the pandemic or promote economic growth are likely to continue, with some modifications.”

The other candidate, Anwar Ibrahim, heads the largest opposition three-party coalition. He is believed to have the support of about 105 MPs, compared with Ismail Sabri’s 114. Anwar was set to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before the reformist coalition collapsed.

Whoever becomes prime minister will take over at a time when the country’s coronavirus cases and deaths per million people are among the highest in the region.

Public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic has grown in recent months, with infections spreading at record rates and hundreds of people dying every day, despite multiple long lockdowns and a ramped up vaccination programme.

Ismail Sabri studied law and has been a member of parliament since 2004, having served in various positions under successive UMNO-led governments and was one of the party’s three vice presidents, whose leader, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is on trial on multiple corruption charges linked to his charitable foundation.

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