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2021 ending but political turmoil set to continue, say experts

Instability looks set to stay as the political landscape becomes more fragmented, they say.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
4 minute read
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob heads to the Dewan Rakyat accompanied by senior officials from the Prime Minister's Department ahead of the first meeting of the fourth term of the 14th Parliament on Sept 14.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob heads to the Dewan Rakyat accompanied by senior officials from the Prime Minister's Department ahead of the first meeting of the fourth term of the 14th Parliament on Sept 14.

The turmoil that marked the bulk of Malaysia’s political developments this year will likely continue into the next, experts say, as internal power struggles continue in Umno and prominent figures dig in amid their ongoing court battles.

At the government level, arguably the biggest turn of events was the resignation of Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister in August following pressure from a group of Umno MPs led by their president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former leader Najib Razak.

Muhyiddin was replaced by Ismail Sabri Yaakob who, armed with his “Keluarga Malaysia” tagline, enjoyed a relatively uneventful first 100 days on the job with Parliament passing the 2022 budget as well as the 12th Malaysia Plan despite his razor-thin majority of just four seats.

He also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the opposition, covering six key aspects including the rights of Sabah and Sarawak, the empowerment of the government’s Covid-19 plan, and parliamentary reforms.

But the recent massive floods which hit eight states, Selangor and Pahang in particular, sparked widespread discontent towards Ismail’s government with critics accusing it of a late response and a lack of preparedness among the relevant agencies.

A man carries furniture out to sun in front of his house in Taman Sri Nanding, one of the areas in Selangor to be hit by the massive floods two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, political analyst Oh Ei Sun said Ismail’s survival as prime minister would depend less on popular perception of his administrative capabilities than on the internal power struggle in his party Umno.

“While the mainstream faction led by Zahid and Najib sees him more as a holdover or seat-warmer to usher in their eventual return to power, he is struggling to form an albeit loose faction to counter the derisive positioning of him by his own party,” Oh told MalaysiaNow.

He said it was understandable that Najib, whose application to quash his 12-year jail sentence and RM210 million fine for charges related to SRC International was thrown out by the appeals court earlier this month, would attempt to cling to his position in Umno after the party election.

The polls, which Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan had said could take place next November, would likely see Ismail trying to make the best of his position as prime minister to take over the party presidency from Zahid, Oh said.

“It remains to be seen if this political shadow play will erupt into the open with the crossing of swords next year,” Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, added.

He said the court cluster would meanwhile employ every trick at their disposal to free themselves from their legal woes.

Najib, who is among those battling criminal charges, has been left with no choice but to turn to the Federal Court for his final appeal against his SRC International conviction and sentence.

If these are upheld by the apex court and the rest of the cluster found guilty as well, they will not be eligible to run in future elections.

Supporters of former prime minister Najib Razak wait outside the Palace of Justice for the Court of Appeal’s decision on his appeal against his conviction and sentence in the SRC International case on Dec 8.

Mazlan Ali of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia expects no further attempts from the opposition to get government MPs to cross the floor, noting the failure of at least two such efforts.

However, he said Ismail could nonetheless suffer the same fate as his predecessor Muhyiddin.

“If there is any move, it would be from Umno itself because Ismail doesn’t seem to be on the same page with the Umno leadership when it comes to the next general election,” he said.

On the opposition side, meanwhile, the two state elections held after the virus emergency was lifted this year saw a near total wipe-out of Pakatan Harapan (PH) in Melaka and Sarawak.

In Melaka, Barisan Nasional formed the state administration after winning 21 of the 28 state seats while in Sarawak, Gabungan Parti Sarawak aligned with the government enjoyed a landslide victory, winning 76 out of 82 seats.

Residents of Pulau Salak queue for their turn to cast their ballots at the Sarawak state election on Dec 18, which saw Gabungan Parti Sarawak winning by a landslide.

Oh said PH as the largest opposition bloc had been rendered “essentially impotent” by the signing of the MoU with the government.

“This was reflected in the voters’ disgust or at least disdain in Melaka and Sarawak, engendering renewed hope in many ambitious politicians and parties of trying to replace PH or at least chipping away at PH’s support base,” he said.

While the 15th general election must be held before July 2023, Mazlan does not expect it to take place next year – a scenario pushed by Zahid’s camp.

“The view of the prime minister on the election date must be in line with that of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah,” he said.

“Even if the Agong is advised to dissolve Parliament, it is within the Agong’s power to disagree.”

He added that recovery from the recent floods would require some months while the Covid-19 situation might lead Ismail to postpone the election date.

Regardless, Oh expects the scene to be even more politically colourful next year, “above all, because of the fragmented political landscape which gives opportunities for all”, he said.

Mazlan agreed, saying Ismail does not seem to have full support from his Cabinet ministers.

Adding that there are “too many Gordian knots” between groups and individuals in political parties, he said the clashing views in Umno and PH’s dissatisfaction with the government “are the seeds of instability that could have an effect for years to come.”