A fight with no clear winners

DATUK Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob is in a very tight spot and if he is not careful, that spot could develop into a deep hole for his career.

His appointment as Deputy Prime Minister has indeed turned out to be the proverbial poisoned chalice.

The post raised his prestige in his party but it has quickly turned into a test of loyalty, compelling him to choose between Umno and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, whom his party is trying to topple.

On Friday (Aug 6), in defiance of his party’s order to quit the government, Ismail Sabri stood on stage flanked by fellow Barisan Nasional MPs to declare support for the Perikatan Nasional government until September when the vote of confidence in Parliament will take place.

It was yet another pivotal moment in the tug-of-war between Umno and the government, except that this time, Ismail Sabri is trapped in the centre.

At one level, the Bera MP is doing the gentlemanly thing in standing by Muhyiddin, who appointed him as his deputy.

At another level, the Umno grassroots are bound to view Ismail Sabri as siding with Muhyiddin over his own party now that Umno has officially ordered its MPs to withdraw support for Muhyiddin’s administration.

The quest to save Muhyiddin has driven a wedge in the Umno leadership, pitching Ismail Sabri against his president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

But Ismail Sabri, who claims to have some 30 MPs with him, actually has his priorities in the right place.

It would be irresponsible for the MPs to cause the government to collapse with a health pandemic raging out of control.

The party's image would sink and they would be thrashed by the people.

The flaw in the pull-out order is that Ahmad Zahid has not provided an answer for what happens after the pull-out.

What will happen to the management of the pandemic?

Who will take over as prime minister?

Will state governments comprising Umno and Bersatu also fall?

“Our country is facing a crisis and they are making it worse. You create a problem without offering a solution,” said an Umno official from Perak.

It is like telling them to move out of the house to camp outside in the garden.

“Umno will be damaged if things go on like this. Personally, I’m not in favour of an impulsive pull-out.

“Why can’t Umno regard Perikatan as a house that we are renting? We can check out when the time is right,” said Pasir Salak vice-chief Dr Faizal Tajuddin.

The rank-and-file was quite agreeable to Umno staying in the government until Parliament was dissolved but Dr Faizal said the fall-out between Muhyiddin and the Palace changed everything.

Umno is a pro-royalist party and Muhyiddin’s image in the Malay heartland has plunged over the perceived “derhaka” incident when the Prime Minister went against the King’s advice in failing to table the Emergency Ordinances during the special sitting of the Dewan Rakyat.

“Defending the Malay Rulers is part of the Umno branding. You take on the Palace and you can end up in the wrong, even when you are right,” said a Selangor businessman.

The issue was a hot topic in Umno chatgroups.

For instance, Maran MP Datuk Seri Dr Ismail Abd Muttalib was thrashed on social media when he proudly announced that he was supporting Muhyiddin.

The issue has triggered emotions and pushed the party grassroots to support Ahmad Zahid’s pull-out directive.

Will the party dare to act against Ismail Sabri and the other MPs for going against the party directive?

If that happens, it will plunge the party into a crisis not seen since the 1990s.

Two ministers have resigned from the Cabinet, the latest being Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Noraini Ahmad, who is also the Wanita Umno leader.

The Parit Sulong MP is known to be close to Ismail Sabri and has a warm working relationship with Muyiddin because they are part of the Johor fraternity.

When Noraini did not show up at Ismail Sabri’s press conference, those present claimed she could not come because she had a migraine.

Noraini’s decision is a blow to the Kluster MP. She leads a wing of 1.3mil women and it is a signal that the women’s wing, which has tentacles in every corner of the country, does not approve of what the Kluster MP is doing.

Will Pengerang MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said be the next to quit as Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker?

Meanwhile, Umno insiders have suggested that Ismail Sabri’s actions are part of a strategic plan in the event that Muhyiddin is unable to get the numbers to stay on.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Ismail is well-placed to take over. But he can only move up if he is able to hold together the component parties.

By standing with Muhyiddin, Ismail Sabri is gaining goodwill and respect from Bersatu. He is hoping that the Bersatu and Umno MPs will rally behind him when the time comes.

The plan looks good on paper but Ismail Sabri is already facing repercussions in the party.

According to political commentator Dr Azmi Omar, the Registrar of Societies (ROS) decision to nullify the postponement of the Umno election will further turn Umno members against the government.

The ROS dealt a blow to Umno on Friday when it directed the party to hold its election as soon as possible.

The ROS decision was clearly aimed at putting the brakes on Ahmad Zahid’s term as president.

Within Umno, it was also viewed as an implied threat to deregister the party.

It is really not easy to take on a sitting prime minister whose powers of incumbency allow him access to the instruments of state.

“This is going to anger Umno members. It will also affect Ismail Sabri. They are saying: 'You are the DPM, yet you allow the government to do this to Umno'. We are seeing confusion of the highest order,” said Azmi.

It is a ruthless political war and there will be no real winners at the end of it.

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