Ismail’s balancing act on a political tightrope

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Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has been getting some praise from a very unlikely source of late – none other than Lim Kit Siang, despite the DAP stalwart’s earlier insistence that Ismail must table a confidence vote first when Parliament resumes.

It did not happen, and there was not even a whimper from the opposition.

On Friday, however, Lim actually lauded the government’s decision to give equal allocations to all MPs, something which Ismail’s predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin had proposed as a last ditch bid in July to stay in power and which was rejected by the opposition.

His hope was that this would usher in a more consultative and inclusive political democratic system in Malaysia. There is more to come, such as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim receiving the benefits of a minister.

Lim views this as a positive sign that the confidence-supply-reform (CSR) memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Ismail and Pakatan Harapan (PH) might succeed despite the gloomy forecast of many.

He openly admitted that this was not because Ismail is a reformer but rather that Ismail was forced by political circumstances to institute changes, or end up as the shortest-serving prime minister.

In other words, Lim inadvertently agrees that Ismail offered the MoU to the opposition out of necessity, in order to retain power as prime minister. The vast powers that come with the premiership no doubt will come in handy when it is time for Ismail to challenge Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for the Umno presidency in the coming months, should he decide to.

It’s the party president who signs the Umno candidates’ tickets for the next general election (GE15) and will thus hold the trump card. If Ismail does not take over the party’s top post, he will remain just a vice-president of Umno when Parliament is dissolved, and Zahid will be in total control.

By all counts, putting his own political fate in the hands of another (Zahid) is a scary scenario for the sitting prime minister.

Support from two rivals

It’s a fact that Ismail is caught between a rock and a hard place. It was the frosty ties between Umno leaders such as Zahid and Najib Razak, and Muhyiddin’s Bersatu, that forced Ismail to reach out to the opposition.

Ismail would not have got the top post without Muhyiddin’s support and Umno’s backing but the support of the two warring parties does not amount to a carte blanche.

Muhyiddin also indicated quite clearly on Friday that Bersatu was ready to fight Umno in the next elections, just as Zahid had declared much earlier.

Ismail cannot afford an open falling-out between the top leaders of Umno and Bersatu or he risks suffering the same fate which forced Muhyiddin to resign as prime minister last month.

That may explain his decision to appoint Muhyiddin as chairman of the National Recovery Council and his agreement to propose Umno secretary-general Ahmad Maslan as deputy speaker, despite Ahmad being tried for corruption.

To shore up support for his fledgling government, Ismail has moved to control the numbers in the Dewan Rakyat which will be voting on a few bills soon. It appears that he has got PH MPs on his side in the event that Umno’s court cluster backs out and leaves him in limbo.

Hanging on opposition backing

For the first time in Malaysian history, a prime minister’s future is hanging by a thread, dependent on the support of opposition MPs as well as his own group.

In less than two months, Ismail has found himself in circumstances similar to that of Muhyiddin.

Unlike his predecessor, Ismail has had some success with the PH opposition coalition, vital for his survival in Parliament as he is not assured of Umno’s blanket support nor of Muhyiddin’s goodwill.

Many in his party and those from Perikatan Nasional are wondering why he is seemingly “funding” the opposition with millions of ringgit by dishing out equal amounts of development funds for both sides as the general election looms.

Although it is an ideal democratic move, this is being done more for his survival and not for reform, some say.

Money in their pockets

From the critics’ perspective, the move may strengthen support for Ismail in Parliament but it will put a lot of cash into the pockets of DAP, PKR and Amanah elected representatives.

It will not only help them retain their 88 seats but also expand their wins in GE15. The funds are good for the people but they are also very good for PH’s election machinery.

Such are the loud rumblings in parties aligned to Ismail’s government, which may prove to be his undoing further down the road.

Ismail, being from Umno, may have exposed the party to more attacks from within its own ranks and provided fodder for other parties in the government to run down Umno.

All in all, Ismail needs the skills of an acrobat as he walks a political tightrope of his own design to reach safety.

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