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Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaks during a press conference at Wisma Pertahanan in Kuala Lumpur July 19, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaks during a press conference at Wisma Pertahanan in Kuala Lumpur July 19, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 17 — Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob will struggle for the support of Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s faction to be prime minister as he will be seen as a vehicle for rival Bersatu, according to political experts.

On Sunday, it was revealed that a movement was underway to secure federal lawmakers’ support for Ismail Sabri to replace Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who resigned as the prime minister yesterday.

Due to the close split between the government and Opposition benches in Parliament, the backing of the parliamentarians in Zahid’s camp will be crucial for any such campaign.

According to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) political science professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Zahid’s faction was likely to view Ismail Sabri with suspicion after he led a band of 31 Barisan Nasional lawmakers to endorse Muhyiddin prior to his resignation.

“It’s the pro-Bersatu faction in Umno that I believe is pitching for Ismail Sabri to be PM. Not the faction aligned to Zahid Hamidi, Umno’s sitting president.

“Appointing Ismail Sabri as [PM] will threaten Zahid’s faction, who will suspect a looming challenge by the PM against Zahid for the party presidency. This will mean unending politicking among the Umno elites, at the same time that we are reeling from Covid-19,” he told Malay Mail.

Last night, Zahid issued a statement to say that Umno was considering “several candidates” for the position, signaling that he and his supporters were not fully on board with the idea of Ismail Sabri as the next prime minister.

This was also after he and Ismail Sabri met at the Umno headquarters on Sunday, when the apparent campaign had already been known.

Zahid’s statement further indicated that any cooperation with Bersatu to form the next government would only be temporary, with the Umno president insisting that a general election — once safely possible — must be held to return the mandate to Malaysians.

Fauzi said this was because Umno and Bersatu’s differences were irreconcilable and their acrimony, too bitter.

“The problem with Umno and Bersatu is akin to the case of two guys chasing after the same girl. PAS, meanwhile, goes for another type of girl — the religiously inclined Malays,” he said.

The two parties had effectively engaged in open hostilities in public, he pointed out, with each undermining the other repeatedly in Perak, Sabah and, now, Putrajaya.

Both parties fundamentally could not coexist together as they were in a zero-sum relationship and must cannibalise each other’s support base due to their core ideologies, he said.

Any party leader open to the rival would consequently be viewed with suspicion, he added.

According to senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Oh Ei Sun, Ismail Sabri was likely aware he might not be able to convince Zahid, given that the Umno vice-president has reached out to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to try and solicit support.

Pejuang deputy president Marzuki Yahya confirmed on Sunday that Ismail Sabri called on the former prime minister to try and win him over, but did not disclose if the effort was successful.

Dr Mahathir formed Pejuang after he was expelled from Bersatu that he co-founded. The party currently sits on the Opposition bench in Parliament and has four federal seats.

“At the moment, there are various rumours that Ismail does not have the support of mainstream Umno. He also may or may not have the support of Datuk Seri Najib Razak or Zahid, and that is why he has to seek the support from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad,” Oh said.

Zahid and his group of lawmakers, variously placed at 11 to 15 MPs, will be the missing link needed for Ismail Sabri to win the nomination to be the next prime minister, said political analyst Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid.

Bersatu was unlikely to block an Umno prime minister while the MPs outside of Zahid’s camp were also not against working with the splinter party, she said when pointing out that the hostility towards Perikatan Nasional largely came from Zahid’s side of Umno.

“Because Bersatu is a splinter of Umno, for the upcoming GE15, they may need the help of Umno grassroots machines at the constituent to wheel the campaigns and all.

“So, Bersatu has to be agile, build more rapport and trust, and not pick a fight or create a nemesis for the sake of its survival,’’ she said.

Muhyddin resigned as the prime minister today after conceding that he longer possessed the majority needed to remain in the position.

The leaders of Malaysia’s main political leaders have been summoned for an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong today, believed to be for discussions on the next prime minister.

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