KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 — Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has made his intentions clear in pressuring Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob to call for an early 15th general election (GE15), and political observers believe the Umno president has the advantage as he has more grassroots support.
Analysts told Malay Mail that Zahid is using this advantage to pressure the Umno vice-president to decide on when he is going to dissolve Parliament.
“Yesterday’s meeting clearly demonstrates direct and explicit pressure placed on Ismail Sabri to influence Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s appeal process and for him to dissolve Parliament, so I think yesterday was a clear signal from the Umno president on how he feels and the grassroots and heads of divisions seemed to concur with him,” said University Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Professor Azmi Hassan.
“They’re using this powerful narrative that Najib was not afforded a fair trial and it looks like a good tool to be used to garner sympathy for Umno. That’s the reason during the meeting they did not disconnect themselves from Najib, rather using him as an icon even though he has been incarcerated.”
Ismail Sabri was booed by thousands of Umno members during party president Ahmad Zahid’s special address yesterday at Merdeka Hall at World Trade Centre (WTC) Kuala Lumpur.
Members also shouted, “Where is Mail (Ismail)?” as he was the only prominent party leader seemingly absent from the special presidential address.
Zahid’s reason for wanting an early GE is because Umno’s supreme council has demanded it to form a stable government, not one that needed the cooperation of the Opposition.
National Professors Council senior fellow Jeniri Amir said Ismail Sabri has no choice now but to cede to Zahid and the party’s wishes.
He said Umno would most likely not nominate him as their poster boy.
“After all, he is there because of Umno. I think that the Umno supreme council genuinely feels that this is the best time for them to win big, nothing more than that, despite the accusations that Ahmad Zahid may be trying to escape from being in prison. But I don’t think that is the main cause. I strongly believe that this is the voice of the top leadership, supreme council and the division chiefs,” he told Malay Mail.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, however, felt that Ismail Sabri could hold on to power as long as he wants provided he has the proper support.
“He could hold on as long as he can count on the parliamentary support of Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional versus the pressure from Umno’s mainstream faction headed by Ahmad Zahid.
“As Ismail Sabri has scarcely any Umno grassroots support to start with, the grassroots are not likely to be divided significantly, but remain quite loyal and united around the mainstream faction,” he said.
Umno members have been divided as to who should be their candidate for prime minister come GE15.
Umno Supreme Council member Datuk Mohd Puad Zarkashi had said that Umno does not need a poster boy for GE15, but his party members disagree with him.
Talks of wanting to sack Ismail Sabri also came up during the meeting but it was quashed by Umno vice president Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid who said they were merely lies.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s political scientist Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid said that dropping Ismail Sabri would be to Umno’s loss because Zahid and Umno are getting unpopular by continuing to give the impression they do not accept the court’s verdict.
He said Umno’s top brass has been issuing statements that are borderline in contempt of court after Najib failed in his final appeal against the High Court’s guilty conviction over the SRC International Sdn Bhd corruption case.
“Their whole cohort has demonstrated irresponsible behaviour by playing up sentiments of the Umno grassroots against the institutions. Umno needs a new crop of leaders who display equanimity when decisions of the state go against their party interests.
“The Umno old guard is still living under the delusions that they are free to manipulate state organs at their whim by virtue of an Umno man heading the federal government — a hangover from 61 years of the blurring of lines separating the party and state,” he said when contacted.
Ahmad Fauzi added that Umno would be digging its own grave by unilaterally ditching Ismail Sabri as their poster boy candidate as they will be seen as being only concerned with looking at political issues from solely the party perspective rather than the national perspective.
“It is harmful to prospects of Umno recovering from its present crisis. Ismail Sabri has defied expectations by appearing to be resolute on the limited reforms that he’s been able to push through, and civil society organisations like Bersih are grateful for whatever improvements he has done with his limited manoeuvring capacity,” he added.
All analysts agree that the public is divided on how they perceive Umno. They believe the hardcore supporters would still feel that Najib did not receive a fair trial while others would secretly be happy that the chapter is closed.
As for Umno chances in GE15 if it was held now, Oh said it would largely depend on the party’s position on Najib.
“I think what truly matters for Umno is their position on Najib, with Ismail Sabri being just a dispensable holdover, at least in the eyes of Umno mainstream faction and most of its grassroots.”
Ismail Sabri was appointed Malaysia’s ninth prime minister just over a year ago.
As the first prime minister not to be the head of a political party, he has so far managed to resist pressure from his party to hold early national elections and even introduce certain key institutional reforms through a deal with the federal Opposition for the sake of government stability.