KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 15 — A strategic “dark horse” from Umno to be the next prime minister could allow the Malay nationalist party to regain control of the federal government, political experts said amid growing speculation of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s impending departure.
While rumours so far have tipped Umno vice president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob as a likely replacement should Muhyiddin resign as expected, the analysts said that choosing such a neutral figure could allow Umno to be its own kingmaker in the race.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) geostrategist Prof Dr Azmi Hassan said the most obvious choice would be Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 84, as the Kelantan prince would firstly be able to unite Umno that was currently split into two main factions.
“It is going to be very difficult if the president (Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi) were to be the PM designate because of the court cases he faces and there is also the issue of rebellion in Umno,” said Azmi.
Zahid is among several Umno leaders on trial for corruption stemming from their time in the Najib administration.
While Zahid has been the central in the move to withdraw support for Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional administration, his motives remain under suspicion due to his existing criminal charges.
Azmi argued that Tengku Razaleigh, whom he described as “steadfast in his principles”, would more likely be able to rally the bipartisan support needed to be the next prime minister in the event Muhyiddin follows through with the rumours.
“Ku Li (Tengku Razaleigh) is the best candidate if Umno wishes to be the dominant force in the new government,” he said.
When asked whether the Umno faction believed to be under Ismail Sabri would accept such a decision, he argued that it would make no sense for them to still side with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia in a scenario where their own party would hold power.
“For them, they will go back with Umno and the party will accept them with open arms as they need the parliamentarian votes in the Dewan Rakyat,” he said, predicting that Bersatu would begin disintegrating soon after.
Azmi argued that a strategic candidate would not only allow Umno to unite all of its own lawmakers, but may also allow it to convince rivals such as DAP with its 42 MPs into a so-called unity government.
Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun agreed that the right candidate could let Umno appeal to both sides of the political aisle, but disagreed that it should be Tengku Razaleigh.
Citing the Umno veteran’s advanced age, he instead suggested a younger figure such as former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who is also Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccine czar.
Oh said Khairy would be more palatable to the Opposition as he has previously demonstrated a willingness to be bipartisan on issues, such as cooperating with DAP MP Ong Kian Ming on vaccination matters in Selangor.
However, Oh said that neither were realistic choices and were only being bandied about due to the state of flux surrounding Umno and national politics.
“That is why the names like Ku Li and Khairy are being tossed around,” he explained.
Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, associate director for Vriens & Partners, a government affairs, public policy and political risk consultancy, suggested it was premature to say that Umno would be able to secure the prime minister’s position until the party could rally behind one specific leader.
This leader must be one credible enough to bring together the various rival factions in the party and enforce a temporary ceasefire.
“The factions will align if there is a candidate that can meet the demands of the various factions- which will likely mean concessions. Umno has survived multiple crises before and it has pulled through,” he said.
“An Umno-led government would mean Bersatu, PAS and other PN allies having to toe the line. In a non-PH configuration, Umno and Bersatu would need to reach some form of consensus in order to get the support for an interim government,” he said.
After his appeal for a political ceasefire on Friday was rejected, Muhyiddin reportedly informed his Bersatu party today that he would be resigning as the prime minister.
He has an audience scheduled with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong tomorrow, during which he is expected to formally resign.
The development has sent the country’s political leaders into a frenzy of meetings, believed to be for horse-trading to form the next coalition government.
As it stands, no known alignment of parties possesses the needed numbers to claim a simple majority in Parliament.