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Bangkok Post
Bangkok Post

Malaysia party drops PM’s allies from polls in emerging rift

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), left, and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Malaysia's prime minister, during an announcement of Barisan National (BN) candidates, ahead of general elections, at the UMNO headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Tuesday. (Bloomberg photo)

Malaysia’s ruling party dropped several key allies of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob from its election candidate list, signalling an emerging power struggle within the leadership ahead of a national poll this month.

United Malays National Organisation President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi left out eight ministers and deputy ministers from the candidate list of the Barisan Nasional coalition that the party leads. The coalition is contesting 166 of the 222 seats in federal parliament for the Nov 19 elections. 

The removal of Ismail’s allies is the latest in an increasingly strained relationship between the prime minister and the UMNO leader, who also heads the coalition. The two have publicly disagreed over the timing of the elections that must be held by September 2023, with Zahid pushing for snap polls this year and Ismail wanting to hold a national vote after the economy is on sounder footing. 

Zahid said late Tuesday that the coalition list was a combination of fresh faces and experience. “Most of all, they represent values such as loyalty and service to voters,” he said. 

The leader’s decision to drop senior members from the election race was met with dismay by some of the party rank and file. One of the lawmakers left out of the list, Federal Territories Minister Shahidan Kassim, urged Zahid to step down as party chief and for Ismail to take over, Utusan newspaper reported.

Traditionally, the UMNO president leads the party and the coalition into the election as the prime minister candidate. However, a protracted political crisis since the 2018 elections led to Ismail, an UMNO vice-president, eventually becoming premier and replacing Muhyiddin Yassin.  

Graft charges

The lawmakers dropped by Zahid include the Communications Minister Annuar Musa. They were part of a group of 31 UMNO lawmakers who defied Zahid a year earlier to support Muhyiddin during a no-confidence vote. Several of them had also been vocal in asking for the party to delay elections till next year.

Another prominent leader in Ismail’s cabinet, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, will be facing an uphill battle after being shuttled to a parliament seat previously held by the opposition Pakatan Harapan.

Zahid, who faces criminal charges for graft, has repeatedly said that Ismail would still be BN’s candidate for prime minister should the coalition have the numbers for a parliamentary majority.  

That may not be the case now with several of Ismail’s allies out of the picture and Zahid seeking to use the elections to consolidate power in UMNO, said Tunku Mohar Tunku Mohd Mokhtar, a political science lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. 

“The sudden replacements suggest that Ismail’s position as PM-designate is at risk,” said Tunku Mohar. “After the elections, Zahid may renege on his promise and nominate himself or a trusted ally as the prime minister.”

Zahid denied a news report that UMNO candidates selected to run in the elections had also been asked to sign letters of support to back him as the next prime minister. 

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