Did PM strike a deal with top Umno leaders?

The recent decision by the Registrar of Societies (ROS) to allow Umno’s controversial decision to postpone party elections even further is a highly questionable one but has to be expected, coming as it did from a branch of the government which is now controlled by Umno.

That means that party elections not only do not have to be held by Dec 30 but can be postponed up to six months after the next general election. Consequently, a bruising Umno party election need not be held before the general election which means the existing leadership can remain until then, providing a lifeline of sorts to current Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

This further stretches the time the Umno leadership is intact. If PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob decides to go full term, GE15 can be delayed to two months past the five years after the first sitting of Parliament following GE14, or September next year.

Add another six months to this, and the current Umno leaders can be in power until March 2024. They were elected on June 30, 2018, which means they could be in power for five years and nine months or two years and nine months beyond their elected three-year term.

On that basis alone, the ROS had a very strong case to reject the constitutional amendments to allow further postponement of the elections which is clearly an abuse of process by the current leadership to stay in power without the sanction of the members.

But ROS did not do that and probably acceded to the demands of the government of the day. This implies that Ismail Sabri, who is in charge of government, must have struck some kind of deal with his top Umno colleagues or he may have decided that it was politically the most expedient thing to do.

Despite attempts to present a united front in Umno, especially among the president, Zahid, deputy Mohamad Hasan (Tok Mat) and the three vice-presidents (Ismail Sabri, Mohamed Khaled Nordin, Mahdzir Khalid), there are underlying tensions which have yet to be resolved.

Effectively, the decision by the ROS is probably the most volatile for the country even after GE15, if Umno wins. A new PM needs to be chosen before the party polls take place up to six months after the general election.

But Umno has its options intact even if that is not necessarily the best thing to happen to them. Going to the polls after deciding on the new leadership is much better and far less unsettling for the country than deciding on the leadership after the GE15 is over.

There is considerable room for jostling post-GE15 and for a new, new PM to be selected after the party polls. Depending on court decisions, the top contenders could be Zahid (if he is not convicted), Tok Mat (if he is an MP), Ismail and Najib Abdul Razak (unlikely, unless he wins the Federal Court decision). The dark horse would be Khairy Jamaluddin (if he is still an MP, for the post of PM).

Divided power

Ismail Sabri is the first Umno PM who is not president of his party, a situation necessitated by circumstance. When former PM Najib stepped down as Umno president after he lost GE14, Zahid, then deputy, assumed the post.

He solidified his position when he won the post at party elections in June 2018, defeating contenders Khairy and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah by a handsome margin. Khairy came in a creditable second, pipping Razaleigh by a wide margin and remains a contender for the top position when party polls come due.

After charges against Zahid were filed, he lost his chance to become PM. Ismail’s rise to the top was because no 2, Tok Mat, could not become PM as he did not hold a parliamentary seat.

After the Sheraton Move, and after Muhyiddin Yassin’s ouster as PM in favour of an Umno candidate, the position fell naturally to Ismail Sabri, a less than satisfactory state of affairs which divided power between the top three in Umno and held out the possibility of Khairy entering the fray.

The decision by the ROS has effectively kept the leadership structure within Umno but caused a number of problems. While it appears that Zahid wields considerable power because the president by convention finalises the list of general election candidates, Ismail holds a trump card.

He, as PM, has the final call on when GE15 will be held – and timing is all important at this juncture. The longer he delays, the more time there is for the courts to decide on Zahid, who faces a multitude of charges, and Najib’s too who faces the Federal Court and potential prison after the Federal Court hearings which begin on the 15th of this month.

Effectively the ROS decision is one which is very bad for both Umno and the nation. With such uncertainty still potentially prevailing after GE15, why even vote for Umno and its allies in the first place? And does most of the country want any of the court cluster characters or even Umno back?

But then ROS decisions involving Umno dating back from Mahathir Mohamad’s time as president and PM the first time have been rather dubious and heavily tilted in favour of the leader at the time instead of justice and fair play.

By not forcing Umno elections when he could have, Ismail Sabri indicates he is not confident of winning the top post at the party polls. That also ensures that his main trump card – when to hold GE15 – remains with him, giving him some leverage and at the very least, a longer time as PM.

If Zahid (and Najib) bow out before the next general election, Ismail Sabri has a pretty good chance of at least becoming number two at both the party and the government with some chance to gain the top position – if he plays his cards right and if Umno wins.

That’s not bad for a person still thought of as an accidental PM and one who is not likely to stay very long in his post.