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As predicted[1], a deal has been struck among the warlords of UMNO. Ismail Sabri, the accidental prime minister, will lead UMNO-BN into GE15 and will remain prime minister if the coalition wins power. With this deal in place, expect elections to come fairly soon. 

The decision of the UMNO supreme council to bury their differences and unite behind Ismail Sabri[2] is, more than anything else, an indication of just how desperate the so-called court cluster is. The slow but steady pace of the law is finally catching up with some of these senior UMNO leaders; time is running out. Their highest priority right now is to stay the hand of justice. Striking a deal with Ismail Sabri is the only option left to them.

For Ismail Sabri, time is not a friend either. The closer he moves towards the end of the parliamentary term (July 2023), the more his influence ebbs. Unless he can strike a deal with the warlords who run his party, he’ll quickly become a lame duck.

Under the circumstances, a marriage of convenience has apparently been brokered – Ismail Sabri gets to hold on to his position as prime minister in exchange for helping the court cluster with their legal problems. 

But can they trust each other? Once parliament is dissolved and elections are called, power passes to party bosses. In UMNO-BN, that’s Zahid Hamidi not Ismail Sabri. It is entirely possible that if UMNO wins big (which is not impossible), Zahid might renege on the arrangement. Supreme council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman has already hinted of this possibility.[3]

Remember too that by convention, the King invites the leader of the party with the most seats to form the government. If that party is UMNO, that person will be Zahid Hamidi. The charges against him could complicate matters, however.

The court cluster, for their part, must worry too about being played out by Ismail Sabri. It will certainly be in Ismail Sabri’s interest not to move too quickly to extricate the court cluster from their legal troubles; once they are free, there’s no telling what they might do to him. Everyone knows that despite his protestations to the contrary, Zahid still has his eyes on Ismail Sabri’s post. He’s just too ambitious to walk away from the ultimate prize, especially when he is so close to it. And who knows what Najib Tun Razak is up to as well.

Nevertheless, for all the UMNO factions, the timing has never been better. The two opposition coalitions – Perikatan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan – are debilitated, desperate and discredited. They’ve been routed in Sabah, Sarawak, Melaka and Johor. 

One has only to listen in on the narrative within PH to understand how demoralised they are. There’s no more talk about retaking Putrajaya; it’s all about surviving with enough seats to stay alive post-GE15. Rafizi Ramli hinted that winning even 80 seats will be challenging for PH.[4] Nurul Izzah suggested that PH needs at least ten years to retake Putrajaya.[5] Lim Guan Eng remarked that the DAP will be hard-pressed to hold on to all its seats.[6]

In the meantime, the war in Ukraine has resulted in surging commodity prices. Crude oil is trading at almost USD100 per barrel while palm oil prices could reach a record high in the coming months. That should give the economy a boost. The worst of the pandemic is also behind us now. Voters want to move on. They may not necessarily be excited about UMNO-BN but they see it as the only viable option. For many, pragmatic economic considerations will trump high ideals about justice and corruption.

Whatever it is, UMNO-BN leaders are suddenly effusive in their praise of Ismail Sabri. Forgotten are the snubs, insults and criticisms that were heaped upon him a few weeks ago. Wee Ka Siong, ever the faithful myrmidon, gushed that Ismail is an “exceptional” leader and the decision to choose him as the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate would usher in a return to the “golden era” of Barisan Nasional.[7]

Clearly, they hope that voters will forget that the so-called golden era was also one of massive corruption, divisive race-baiting, declining standards of education and the steady deterioration of all our national institutions. Will voters realise that all that glitters is not gold? I doubt it.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 15 April 2022]

[1] Who will be the next prime minister? | http://www.dennisignatius.com | 22 March 2022

[2] Umno picks Ismail Sabri as its PM candidate for GE15 |Malaysia Insight | 14 April 2022

[3] No guarantee Ismail will be PM despite Umno’s proposal, says Tajuddin |FMT | 14 April 2022

[4] Rafizi: Harapan should aim for 80 seats in GE15 to avoid losing relevance | Malaysiakini | 27 March 2022

[5] It will take Pakatan 10 years to win back Putrajaya, says Nurul Izzah | Malay Mail | 14 April 2022

[6] DAP may lose 5 of its 42 parliamentary seats in GE15, says Guan Eng | Malaysiakini | 26 March 2022

[7] No guarantee Ismail will be PM despite Umno’s proposal, says Tajuddin | FMT | 14 April 2022