Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) appears set to become the country’s next prime minister. He has the support of 114 (out of 220) members of parliament that until before the political crisis had constituted former prime minister Muyhiddin Yassin’s National Alliance (PN). The king will meet with the other state rulers on Friday, after which he will reportedly ask parliament to hold a confidence vote. Ismail beat opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of the Alliance of Hope (PH). There has also been speculation about the monarchy pushing for a unity government to reduce political infighting, but the idea does not seem to have traction.
Ismail is a known quantity domestically, having held various cabinet portfolios over the past decade, including defense, agriculture, domestic trade, rural and regional development, and youth and sports, among others. He is one of three UMNO vice presidents who was selected after the erstwhile ruling National Front’s (BN) defeat in the 2018 general elections, reflecting his popularity among the party’s traditional Malay constituency as the party sought to protect its base. However, Ismail has had his moments of controversy. In 2015, while in the cabinet, he posted on his Facebook page that Malays should boycott ethnic Chinese businesses to force them to lower their prices. In the same year, he suggested that a tech mall be set up exclusively for Malay retailers, called Low Yat 2.
The sense that Ismail at least has a parliamentary majority behind him and the persistence of high levels of community infections that will be used to justify politics again refocusing on pandemic management should reduce the political temperature in Malaysia. Outside PN and UMNO, however, there will be less goodwill towards the leadership change. But the opposition will, for the next few months, be constrained by the public health emergency from launching serious attacks against the new prime minister (except those related to the pandemic or the economic recovery). Policy-wise, Ismail will most likely focus on Covid-19, recognizing that while his predecessor was able to claim some initial success in dealing with the pandemic last year, public perceptions eventually turned negative, with policy being seen as too ad-hoc and inconsistent in the face of the surging delta variant. To address this criticism, Yassin launched the National Recovery Plan, a four-step exit from the pandemic, as well as a USD 35bn stimulus program that ranges from cash aid to tax breaks. But the plan came too late to redeem him politically.
Ismail may junk the recovery plan in name to avoid entanglement with the previous government. Still, he will likely lay out a similar roadmap and promise extensive aid and support for the lower-income Malays that are key to rebuilding UMNO’s base. He will appoint a cabinet with a greater proportion of UMNO members to quiet internal dissent. All of these should buy the new government some time before the broad political bickering intensifies.
Aside from ensuring his near-term survival, his main political objective will likely be to rebuild support from the party’s Malay constituencies, especially since Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities are unlikely to view the change in government favorably — polarization that is more likely to worsen than improve. He recognizes that he presides over a party with bad blood from the recent infighting, allies such as former prime minister Najib Razak, who is appealing a corruption conviction, that could generate political vulnerabilities for his party and overlapping constituencies in the next elections. As a result, promises of fundamental reforms will be muted while the focus will be on dispensing the patronage and economic largesse that had assured UMNO of past electoral victories.