KUALA LUMPUR, March 14 — Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali has seemingly ended up the second most powerful man in Putrajaya, after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that among the four senior ministers, he will chair the Cabinet meeting during the prime minister’s absence.
Political analysts polled by Malay Mail saw this as Muhyiddin effectively appointing Azmin as de facto deputy prime minister which may count as a personal victory for the former PKR man, but this may come with potential backlash from discontented Perikatan Nasional (PN) colleagues.
“It is a personal victory for Azmin Ali, but others will definitely be unhappy as they would think that Azmin Ali has been given too much for the little support that he provided; 11 MPs who crossed over with him to PN,” Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) political scientist Jayum Jawan.
Azmin had led an exodus with initially 10 other MPs from PKR to support Muhyiddin. Earlier this week, Muhyiddin confirmed that with the exception of Baru Bian, the rest had joined Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia ― including the ethnic Indian Datuk Seri Dr Santhara Kumar who was made an associate member of the Malay-exclusive party.
However, the professor suggested that the trust shown by Muhyiddin towards Azmin might not necessarily be shared by other leaders within PN ― which also included Umno and PAS.
For Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, announcing preference for Azmin’s over three other senior ministers was one way of Muhyiddin giving in and satisfying the former’s political ambitions.
Oh suggested that naming Azmin as a so-called “first among equals” was also a political masterstroke by Muhyiddin to allay any form of negative attention from himself, equally as good as his move to appoint four senior ministers instead of a deputy PM to ensure no clear succession line.
“But on the other hand, Azmin would henceforth be the main target for Umno’s equally relentless bickering for power, thus politically shielding Muhyiddin from Umno’s direct onslaught,” he said.
Already, Umno’s Pasir Salak MP Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman has said earlier this week that the appointment of Azmin as a senior minister in the new Cabinet makes him and others uncomfortable.
The Umno supreme council member said Azmin’s appointment as one of four senior ministers and his membership of Bersatu is a way for the latter to strengthen itself to the detriment of Umno.
Who should lead the senior ministers instead?
For Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) geostrategist Azmi Hassan, the role of Cabinet chairman in Muhyiddin’s absence should have gone to Umno’s Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri, who he said was the logical choice.
The professor explained that as part of Umno’s partnership with PAS called Muafakat Nasional (MN), Ismail should have been given the role as he brought in the larger count of MPs and support to form PN.
“Those in MN are not only dissatisfied with the number of Cabinet posts allocated by the prime minister, but by naming Azmin who only provided 11 MPs to PN, surely will raise some objections.
“In my opinion, in order to cool down objections from MN on the Cabinet posts, or lack of it, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin should [have] named Ismail Sabri instead of Azmin in this case,” he said.
Jayum concurred with Azmi saying the faction that followed Azmin into Bersatu was only a group of 10, suggesting it should not be sufficient to demand major roles in government as the numbers do not appear capable at significantly strengthening the party.
“Their crossover to Bersatu does not appear to help strengthen the party because their supporters, the grassroots are not seen as coming with them, just the 11 of them crossed,” he said.
With the entry of Azmin’s camp, Bersatu now have at least 30 MPs as part of the PN government, as compared to Umno’s 42.
The observers were also asked if they saw Muhyiddin’s appointment of Azmin, as Cabinet chair in his absence, as a move to placate the latter for only awarding him the International Trade and Industry Ministry (MITI) portfolio, to which the pundits were mixed.
“No, I don’t think the appointment is related to Azmin taking over MITI, but more of appreciation by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for Azmin’s 11 MPs joining Bersatu,” said UTM’s Azmi.
Jayum, on the other hand, felt the announcement of Cabinet chair in Muhyiddin’s absence was both a reward and also to pacify Azmin’s political aspirations, but ultimately to apply subtle pressure on Azmin to perform his duties.
“Maybe both (to reward and pacify). But it puts pressure on him to perform,” he added, referring to Azmin.
Formerly economic affairs minister, Azmin is now a senior minister together with Umno’s Ismail Sabri (defence), Gabungan Parti Sarawak’s Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof as Works Minister, and Bersatu’s Mohd Radzi Md Jidin as Education Minister.