Battle lines are being drawn up but the prime minister appears prepared for a head-on collision with those pressuring him to call for polls, at least for now.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob may be facing the greatest threat to his government, some 10 months after taking over the post with reluctant support from a group of top Umno leaders known as the “court cluster”, MalaysiaNow has learnt.
But Ismail appears to be “putting up a strong fight” against the group led by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, said a source close to several members of the party’s Supreme Council which met last night.
“The tone of the meeting was very obvious to anyone who attended. And Ismail’s absence was also the elephant in the room,” the source told MalaysiaNow.
Zahid and former leader Najib Razak, both facing scores of criminal charges and one already convicted, have launched a strong attack on their vice-president after repeated calls to dissolve Parliament were ignored by Putrajaya.
A recent outburst by Johor Umno deputy chief and Zahid loyalist Nur Jazlan Mohamed, who called Ismail “the weakest Umno prime minister”, was just one facet of the court cluster’s attacks.
The comments drew an immediate reaction from members of Ismail’s Cabinet who have been vocal against the court cluster, including Annuar Musa and Khairy Jamaluddin.
Ismail’s government, made with the backing of Umno’s adversary Perikatan Nasional as well as Sarawak’s GPS, has consistently said that tackling inflation and jumpstarting the economy post-Covid should be prioritised over political concerns.
This has angered the court cluster group led by Zahid and Najib, with many of their loyal followers now coming out in the open to attack Ismail, accusing him of being a weak leader by not calling for polls so that Umno can restore its previous stranglehold on Putrajaya.
Many within the Umno rank and file as well as those in state leaderships have so far been cautious about taking sides in this brewing civil war.
“But one thing the Umno leaders agree on is the huge mistake of bringing back the court cluster and restoring the Umno leadership as it was before the 2018 election that brought the party to its knees,” a former minister from Umno told MalaysiaNow.
The recent sacking of a Najib loyalist from leading Umno’s propaganda war in Selangor is just one example of how the party has realised that “Facebook popularity cannot translate into real votes”, he said, alluding to Najib’s daily posts on Facebook, which has become the former prime minister’s main platform for showing that public sympathy is with him.
“Yes, but sympathy cannot translate into votes. Ask Anwar Ibrahim,” the same ex-minister said, referring to the PKR leader.
Early this month, Selangor Umno sacked Isham Jalil, a forty-something who had stood by Najib and other troubled party leaders.
The court cluster group which controls Umno responded in kind, removing veteran leader and Ismail supporter Tajuddin Abdul Rahman from the Supreme Council over his criticism of the party’s move to speed up the general election.
Days later, in another show of force against Ismail, the Umno central leadership promoted Isham as Tajuddin’s replacement in the Supreme Council, further closing the doors to any criticism against the court cluster.
For now, Ismail appears prepared for a head-on collision with those pressuring him to call for polls, a move that would be as good as ending the premiership for which he had never lobbied.
“He may have branded himself as a kampung politician, but his recent steps show that he has quickly learnt the art of engaging with fellow party leaders bent on removing him from power,” said a minister’s aide.
“This is also why he is aware that the endorsement by Umno leaders to reappoint him as prime minister after the next polls means nothing. As a veteran ‘Umno totok’ man, he is familiar with trickery,” the aide added, using the term which means “true blue Umno”.
Ismail’s absence from the Supreme Council meeting appears to be one indication that the battle lines are slowly being drawn.
Instead, he chose to be in the company of world leaders at an online dialogue in Kuala Lumpur involving BRICS, the economic grouping made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
“That is basically telling Umno leaders that they are not the government, and will never call the shots.
“He is effectively telling them, ‘I have more important official duties than your party politics’,” said the aide.