Ismail Sabri looks set to become Malaysia’s next prime minister

If confirmed, Sabri’s appointment will mark UMNO’s return to leadership three years after the party lost polls over corruption allegations.

If confirmed, Ismail Sabri’s appointment would mark the return of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to leadership, three years after it lost a general election because of corruption allegations, especially around the multibillion-dollar scandal at investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Caretaker Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned earlier this week after conceding he had lost majority support, said on Thursday that his coalition unanimously backed his former deputy to ensure continuity of policies on “fighting COVID-19 and the nation’s recovery” until it was suitable to hold elections.

The support was conditional on Ismail Sabri ensuring that the new cabinet members were free from graft charges, he said in a statement.

Several UMNO politicians were charged with corruption after the 2018 election defeat.

UMNO Secretary-General Ahmad Maslan said in a tweet that Ismail Sabri currently has the support of 114 legislators out of the 222-seat parliament. The figure surpasses the 111 needed for a simple majority.

A decision on the new government head is likely to be announced on Friday after King Al-Sultan Abdullah meets with the country’s other senior royals.

The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.

Ismail Sabri’s UMNO governed the country for more than 60 years until the election rout in 2018. The two governments that came after the polls proved to be fragile and short-lived. UMNO was part of the last one, but Muhyiddin’s coalition collapsed when some of its legislators pulled out.

Ei Sun Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Ismail Sabri’s government might not be stable either given his slim majority.

He added that Malaysians will view Ismail Sabri’s appointment under the same alliance “as nothing more than a game of musical chairs”.

“His cabinet appointees are likely to be familiar faces and it is more than likely that similar policies that failed to arrest the pandemic advances or spur economic growth will be continued with minor tweaks.”

The other contender in the race, Anwar Ibrahim, leads a three-party alliance that is the biggest opposition bloc with 88 votes. Even if all opposition parties support him, he would still fall short with only 105 votes.

Anwar was due to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before their reformist alliance collapsed in February 2020, sparked by the withdrawal of Muhyiddin’s party.

Muhyiddin then formed a new government with corruption-tainted UMNO and several other parties.

In Muhyiddin’s government, Ismail Sabri was among ministers responsible for framing Malaysia’s response to the pandemic and he could be taking over at a time when the country’s coronavirus infections and deaths per million rank as the region’s highest.

Public anger has grown in recent months over the administration’s handling of the crisis as infections continued to spread at a record pace despite multiple extended lockdowns and ramped up vaccinations.

A member of parliament since 2004, Ismail Sabri served as a cabinet minister under two other prime ministers before Muhyiddin and held various portfolios including rural and regional development, agriculture and domestic trade.


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