What is Umno’s Plan B?
Umno’s Plan A is clear: call an election this year, as soon as possible, before the opposition gets more prepared, inflation gets worse, and voters get interested in politics again.
The winners would be clear, not just Umno, but also Najib Abdul Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who may count on an Umno landslide to increase their chance of walking free, by acquittal or pardon.
This Plan A has one obvious obstacle: Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob who is seen as too friendly towards Bersatu and the most of all, risks unemployment immediately after GE15 despite Umno’s promise to make him the “poster boy”.
It’s clearly in Ismail Sabri’s interest to have a party election before the general election because he can go for the presidency and if he wins, he can dictate Umno’s GE15 candidates and extend his premiership with an Umno victory.
This of course needs to be approved by the Registrar of Societies (ROS), who answers to Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin, who hopped from Umno to Bersatu in 2018 and is widely seen as hostile to Umno.
If the ROS disapproves Umno’s constitutional amendment, Ismail Sabri may be seen as weak or betraying his own party, or both.
Hence, even if the party election is held, Ismail Sabri may lose his presidential bid despite the incumbency advantage as a sitting PM.
If the constitutional amendment seems like Umno’s master stroke to check on Ismail Sabri, it is less so in reality, even if Hamzah allows for the approval of Umno’s constitutional change. Why?
If Ismail Sabri is convinced, or fears, that he would lose his prime minister job after winning GE15, either within months (ala ex-PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) or immediately (Johor’s former menteri besar Hasni Mohammad), then it is in his best interest to stay on as long as possible.
After all, if Ismail Sabri steps down before Feb 10, 2023, he would have been PM for less than 539 days, making him the PM with the shortest tenure.
Muhyiddin Yassin would be very happy for Ismail Sabri to beat his own record of 539 days, counting from March 1, 2020, till when his caretaker PM’s role ended on Aug 21, 2021.
And the removal of Pasir Salak MP Tajuddin Abdul Rahman from his appointed position in the Umno supreme council perhaps only strengthens Ismail Sabri’s resolve to stay on longer.
Now that Umno president Zahid has made clear who is the boss in Umno, Ismail Sabri has a new fear. If he is to call an election, say on the second day after the tabling of the 2022 budget in October, he would look like a lame duck in his last months.
Purging of Umno top gun
So, what’s Umno’s Plan B if Ismail Sabri continues to delay his move to seek an early dissolution of Parliament, which is his sole prerogative? And to give or withhold the royal assent to such request from the PM is the king’s absolute discretion.
The rising prices (until Russian President Vladimir Putin stops the war or is stopped) and any resurgence of Covid-19 cases would make good grounds for either PM to not seek or the king to not approve an early dissolution.
The nuclear option speculated by some is for the supreme council to sack Ismail Sabri. This will not happen because it would be the “fallen durian” for the opposition.
The magic ingredient for an opposition’s united front is always the purging of Umno top gun – former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1988 (effectively done when Umno was deregistered), former DPM Anwar Ibrahim in 1999, and former DPM Muhyiddin in 2016.
If a sitting Umno PM is sacked, immediately Pakatan Harapan would be back on the government’s bench, and a big tent of Harapan, PN and Ismail Sabri loyalists would become a reality.
The default option would be for Umno-in-WTC and Umno-in-Putrajaya to continue their cold war until one side concedes. And the GE15 guessing game would go on, from September to November, and possibly to next January, March, June and August.
After every missed window, Umno would try to look for the next best time to push Ismail Sabri’s hand, but the opportune time may well be dictated by Putin, virus or floods.
And this would not make Umno look good for winning GE15 as a force of stability.
First, it only confirms the fear that some investors and analysts already see: a big win for Umno would be followed by a royal battle between the big boys.
Second, a never-ending guessing game kills off certainty – even just for months – for both businesses and ordinary people. Extremely short-term policies aiming to win or survive elections cannot build investors’ and consumers’ confidence at a time of unprecedented multiple crises.
It’s time for Umno to think hard not on the surety of its Plan A, but on the increasingly inevitable need for a Plan B.
And this requires Umno facing the elephant room: the post-GE15 leadership contest in Umno.
Most major parties in Malaysia cannot deal with leadership contests, and they split after every contested party election. This is certainly the case for Umno since Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and of course, Umno’s political crises become Malaysia’s.
Can Umno’s next presidential contest be different from in that the party stays intact, with the losing faction living in peace with the winning faction, without purging or marginalisation?
Instead of pretending that Ismail Sabri can keep his job after GE15 and trying to get him to call an early election, it may be more rational for both sides to contemplate the opposite: a full term for Ismail Sabri, a stronger Umno’s control on the government, and a fair leadership contest after GE15.
That would keep Umno united and well-placed for GE15. Even if the opposition is more prepared and coordinated by mid-2023, even if turnout goes much higher than 55 percent in Johor, Umno may still win the largest number of seats to dominate the next government, if it can use the coming year to lead Malaysia through the multiple crises of economic hardship, healthcare threat and environmental backlash, with solid policies and real reforms.
Is Umno ready to go out of the old game? That’s the question.
WRITER – WONG CHIN HUAT