Asking the right question

EVERYONE is abuzz over when Parliament will be dissolved to usher in the 15th General Election (GE15) – but that might be the wrong question to ask.

Instead of asking “When will Parliament be dissolved?”, a better question might be “For how long does Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob want to be PM?”

Only the Prime Minister can seek the King’s consent for the dissolution of Parliament. Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri had previously laid out the steps he would take to decide on the date of GE15.

Arguably, he took step three on Wednesday, which is to consult his Cabinet. The feedback is that 13 ministers from Perikatan Nasional (nine from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and four from PAS) are dead set against holding GE15 this year. Out of 11 Umno ministers, some who are not aligned with party president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also do not favour a snap poll.

Step one, which is to consult Umno’s top leaders, is expected to happen on Friday. The top four, excluding Ismail Sabri himself, are Ahmad Zahid, deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan and vice-presidents Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin and Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid.

Step two is the Prime Minister discussing a dissolution date with Barisan Nasional component parties (MCA, MIC and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah, apart from Umno itself), while the final step is, of course, petitioning the King for dissolution.

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We’ve been playing the dissolution date guessing game since Umno began escalating pressure to seek a “fresh mandate” from the people supposedly by dissolving the Johor state assembly in January. The year will end soon, and window for GE15 is narrowing for those in Umno who want voters to go to the ballot boxes in 2022.

The biggest reason against early polls is safety concerns if voting is held during the floods expected at year-end – last year’s floods were the most devastating in decades thanks in large part to climate change, and there’s no telling how bad things will get this year.

Within Umno, there are two beliefs about whether GE15 will be on this year.

A group of “believers”, including party president Ahmad Zahid, are confident that the Prime Minister will request dissolution soon. The date mentioned is Oct 10, three days after Budget 2023 is tabled in Parliament but probably before it is actually passed since some time is required for debate.

The second group comprise “sceptics” convinced that Ismail Sabri wants to prolong his tenure as Prime Minister as much as possible. They think even after the Prime Minister’s “Bila tarikhnya? Saya dan presiden akan menentukan, tapi percayalah sikit lagi, tak lama (When is the date? The president and I will decide but, believe me, it will be soon)” comment, it will not truly be sikit lagi (a little bit longer). The sceptics believe the call for quick polls is being made only to ease pressure on Umno so the Prime Minister can delay the decision.

If the Prime Minister delays dissolution and defies the Umno president, what can Ahmad Zahid do? Does he control Umno’s top five? Does Ahmad Zahid control Supreme Council members?

The Umno president cannot push for early polls if he does not have the support of the other top four. And he can’t suspend or sack Umno leaders who are not in favour of GE15 this year if the Supreme Council does not back him.

But all is not lost for Ahmad Zahid. He still has options.

For example, he can swap disloyal Supreme Council members with loyalists and then get backing to sack or suspend those not aligned with him. He could also get six Umno MPs to withdraw support from the PM. Ismail Sabri, arguably, has 116 MPs supporting him, and with 220 MPs in total, the PM needs a majority of 111 to retain control of Parliament – so it wouldn’t take much to cause the government’s collapse and force GE15.

Discussing what options Ahmad Zahid has to force the Prime Minister to cut short his tenure with an Umno insider, I was told, “Wait for Sept 30!”

According to him, the line in the sand on GE15 will be decided on Friday.

Umno nonbelievers are sceptical, though, because the line has shifted several times already this year and Ismail Sabri has continued on as Prime Minister.

All this is why the dissolution of Parliament really boils down to the question how long does Ismail Sabri Yaakob want to be PM? Only those pulling our political strings from the shadows know the answer.