Malaysia PM’s race is wide open weeks before vote

MALAYSIA may get a new prime minister (PM) as next week’s elections will consist of multi-cornered fights for most of the 222 Parliament seats, prompting political parties to shift alliances to form government.

While Ismail Sabri Yaakob is the PM candidate for the ruling Umno, he isn’t a shoo-in as it’s unlikely that any party or coalition will have a clear majority to form the government after the Nov 19 vote. This is set to prolong the political turmoil in this South-East Asian country that has seen three changes in government and prime ministers in the past four years.

Ismail faces competition from four other seasoned ethnic Malay politicians. All of them are either current or former members of Umno, which governed Malaysia for more than six decades until voters booted it from power in 2018 due mainly to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) fund scandal that involved billions of dollars. The party returned to power in less than two years after the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan.

Here’s a look at the contenders who could form the next government:

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, 62

Since taking over as PM in August last year, Ismail made some strides in stabilising Malaysia politically, including signing an unprecedented confidence and supply agreement with the Opposition and carrying legislative reforms to stop party-hopping among lawmakers.

Still, Ismail has become the shortest-serving PM in Malaysia after he gave into pressure from factions within Umno to call for snap elections. His influence within the party waned further after several key allies were dropped last week from the election race, pointing to a power struggle.

Ismail, who started his political career in 1987, was the deputy PM (DPM) in Muhyiddin Yassin’s short-lived administration and has held the defense, rural development and agriculture portfolios.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 69

Going by convention, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi would be Umno’s PM candidate given his position as its party president. However, the one-time deputy prime minister faces multiple corruption charges in court, leading him to openly back Ismail as BN’s poster boy — but not before he toyed with the possibility of naming other PM candidates.

Since taking over UMNO as president after the 2018 elections, Zahid has tried to strengthen the party and orchestrated the collapse of the Muhyiddin Yassin administration by ordering party members to withdraw its support for the former premier. An ally of Najib Razak, Zahid urged party members to support a royal pardon for the disgraced former premier, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence in connection to 1MDB.

Once seen as an outcast for supporting Anwar Ibrahim during an UMNO power struggle in the 1990s, Zahid served as DPM and home minister in Najib’s government. Although Ahmad Zahid was acquitted in court for corruption involving foreign visas in September, the lawmaker faces another trial involving one of his foundations.

Anwar Ibrahim, 75

Anwar Ibrahim is Opposition Pakatan Harapan’s candidate, and the election may be his last chance to bag the top job that has eluded him for decades. A rising star in Umno and a former DPM, Anwar was seen as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s successor in the 1990s before he was fired in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and jailed for committing sodomy and abuse of power — charges he denied. He was convicted in 2014 on a subsequent sodomy charge and jailed again in 2015 when his appeal was denied.

Anwar’s party joined forces with Mahathir to wrest power from Umno in 2018 to form the government, leading to the Opposition leader’s pardon and release from jail. However, the alliance and the government unraveled in 2020 when Mahathir repeatedly delayed on his promise to step aside for Anwar to lead the country.

The former finance minister made several bids to become PM in the wake of Dr Mahathir’s resignation, but was defeated by Muhyiddin and then Ismail due to lack of support from lawmakers.

Mahathir Mohamad, 97

Malaysia’s senior statesman, Mahathir Mohamad, leads a third, pro-Malay coalition that has reached out to rival Opposition parties on the possibility of working together to defeat Umno in the coming election. To be sure, the two-time PM has declined to name himself as candidate for the top job, saying the matter would only be relevant should his party win the polls. Still, he remains influential by virtue of his experience and time in power — first in Umno and then in his own parties.

During his first 22 years in office, Dr Mahathir had an affinity for ambitious, mega-projects such as the world’s tallest office building at the time and South-East Asia’s largest airport. In 2018, he led an election campaign that unseated the Umno-led coalition, and helped bring dozens of criminal charges against Najib and Ahmad Zahid. He resigned in 2020 after his party exited Pakatan Harapan.

Muhyiddin Yassin, 75

Muhyiddin Yassin’s stint as Malaysia’s eighth PM was cut short when he lost the support of several Umno lawmakers in August last year. But the cancer survivor has made it clear he wants another shot at the premiership.

Muhyiddin was PM for 15 months during the height of the pandemic, having cobbled together a loose coalition with Umno to succeed Dr Mahathir in 2020. His time at the helm was rife with political instability due to razor-thin support in Parliament, as well as economic uncertainty due to several lockdowns.

He now leads a coalition of parties that have an on-again-off-again relationship with Umno. Muhyiddin backed Ismail as the PM to succeed him in 2021, and in return was appointed to lead a government advisory body focusing on the economy. Ties have soured since then, with Muhyiddin saying Ismail failed to lead Malaysia to recovery. – BLOOMBERG