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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's scandal-tarnished UMNO poised to retake PM's office

Ismail Sabri Yaakob appears to have majority, effectively undoing 2018 election

Malaysian prime minister candidate Ismail Sabri Yaakob waves from a bus on his way to an audience with the king on Aug. 19.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- The Malaysian political party that lost the 2018 election under a cloud of corruption suspicion is poised to regain power, as the search for the country's next prime minister appears to be nearing a conclusion.

The leading candidate is former Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a veteran of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). He is believed to have the support of 114 lawmakers -- enough for a majority. But while he may have the edge on opposition hopeful Anwar Ibrahim, the prospect of his appointment is raising eyebrows.

Although Ismail has not been implicated in corruption himself, he hails from a party closely tied to the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

Money from 1MDB is alleged to have been misappropriated by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, also of UMNO, and a few others. At least $4.5 billion is thought to have been taken and, according to U.S. authorities, used to purchase luxuries ranging from a superyacht to Picasso artwork.

Najib, who led UMNO's camp to its 2018 defeat at the hands of Mahathir Mohamad's coalition, was convicted last year on seven charges of financial misconduct and abuse of power in connection with a 1MDB subsidiary. An influential figure in UMNO to this day, Najib denies wrongdoing and is appealing the verdicts, while facing numerous other charges.

The scandal was considered a key factor in Najib's downfall as prime minister. Now, if Ismail is named premier, UMNO will have in effect overturned the 2018 election without going back to the polls.

Multiple local media reported that the 114 lawmakers from several parties backing Ismail's candidacy were summoned to the palace on Thursday to verify their support. Under Malaysia's constitution, the king has the power to appoint a prime minister deemed to control a parliamentary majority.

UMNO's comeback has been a gradual process. First, in early 2020, the party backed Muhyiddin Yassin's internal coup with the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), prompting Mahathir's resignation and allowing Muhyiddin to become prime minister that March.

Then UMNO turned against Muhyiddin, vowing not to cooperate with Bersatu in the next election. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi -- who faces his own separate corruption allegations -- led 15 lawmakers in formally withdrawing support for Muhyiddin's government, prompting the prime minister's resignation on Monday.

Ismail and his faction stood by Muhyiddin until the end, opening a rift within UMNO. But after party lawmakers settled their differences and agreed to back him unanimously, UMNO now appears to be on the cusp of a return to the top.

Ismail has no known allegations hanging over him. Shortly before his nomination was announced, UMNO lawmaker Zahidi Zainul Abidin was quoted by local media as saying, "What is important is that [the candidate] is clean and does not have any cases that could cast doubt on his credibility."

Muhyiddin on Thursday released a statement confirming that all 50 members of his own coalition were supporting Ismail -- on the condition that no one facing criminal charges is included in the new cabinet.

Nevertheless, online rumblings suggest an undercurrent of public unhappiness with Ismail's increasingly likely rise. A petition titled "We don't want Ismail Sabri Yaakob to be prime minister Malaysia" had attracted over 233,000 signatures as of late Thursday afternoon. The petition accuses him of mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and of fanning ethnic tensions between Malays and Chinese.

Ismail was a central figure in Malaysia's coronavirus response, as a senior minister for security. Despite one of the higher vaccination rates in Southeast Asia, with about 35% fully inoculated, many see the government's measures as a failure due to still-rising infections and economically damaging lockdowns. The country reported 22,948 new cases on Thursday, another record. Total cases have exceeded 1.4 million with over 13,000 deaths.

Ismail, 61 and a lawyer by education, has held various federal portfolios since becoming youth and sports minister in 2008, barring a short spell in the opposition from 2018 to 2020. He also served as the parliament's opposition leader for a year.

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