Malaysian Party Polls: 'Fight for the Next Generation'

Malaysia's United Malays National Organization - the world's longest-ruling political party - is to hold its triennial intraparty elections on Oct. 19 in a contest that one UMNO source calls "a fight for the next generation in the party."

For the first time, the race, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the thick of it as potential kingmaker, is open to 140,000 members of the party's 3.4 million rank and file, instead of polling a few hundred top cadres. Despite a considerable lack of enthusiasm, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will be re-elected without challenge as party president, with Muhyiddin Yassin remaining as deputy president and deputy prime minister.

From there down, however, it gets more interesting, and becomes a test of whether UMNO is willing to give up the kind of corrupting influences that got the party in so much trouble with the voters in May, when for the first time since 1969 the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition lost the popular vote to the opposition despite preserving its position in parliament, 133-89, via a thoroughgoing gerrymandering of the districts.

Najib's post-election pledges to clean out corruption have largely been met with derision. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a party elder whom few listen to, recently wrote that the challenges facing Malaysia include "a need for a clean government of integrity to combat the rampant and pervasive corruption. During the past decade, reports say Malaysia lost US$338 billion in illicit money outflows and 50 percent of Malaysian companies report they lose business opportunities because rival companies pay bribes to decision-makers."

"I would say it is a fight between Khairy and Mukhriz." the source said. Although they are not facing off against each other, that would be Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir, the 49-year-old son of the former Prime Minister, who is seeking to become one of the party's three vice presidents, probably as an eventual attempt to springboard to the premiership now held by Najib, and Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is despised by the Mahathir wing of the party. Khairy is the chairman of UMNO Youth, the youth wing of the party.

Khairy, now 37, was previously a target not only of Mahathir but of Najib, partly because he was a Badawi representative but also because they accused him of using his relationship to Abdullah Badawi to gain special favors. However, he has since become close to both Najib and Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, which is believed to guarantee his return as both youth and sports minister and UMNO Youth head.

Although the 88-year-old former premier Mahathir remains the most popular figure in the party, his influence is under severe strain. Today, the betting is that Mukhriz will finish out of the running for the vice presidency, although he is said to have been gaining ground in recent days. And Khairy is expected to retain his seat as chairman of the youth wing - an eventuality for the former prime minister that could be called a worst-case scenario.

Najib is seeking to maintain the current slate of three vice presidents - Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal against an onslaught of three challengers, the most visible of whom is Mukhriz.

Well-placed sources in Kuala Lumpur say Mukhriz and the challengers are likely to lose out to the incumbents, although one source told Asia Sentinel: "Much as it's tough for Mukhriz, I wouldn't write him off. He might just squeak in."

At Najib's behest the three incumbents have been traveling the country as a team, practicing the kinds of money politics that the party had publicly eschewed, while Mukhriz, elected in June as the Chief Minister of his father's home state of Kedah, has been attempting to pull off a victory without practicing the same kind of spending.

Mahathir and his allies continue to blame a weakened Najib for the electoral debacle in May, accusing him of a vain attempt to get ethnic Chinese and Indian voters to support the Barisan at a time when the other races, turned off by rabid Malay nationalist politics, had clearly abandoned it.

Only by appealing to fears of Chinese political as well as economic dominance to the 60.1 percent ethnic Malay majority and allied party machines in the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak was the Barisan able to squeak through with its win. At that, the two component parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, both riven with factionalism and charges of corruption, were nearly destroyed. UMNO preserved the Barisan's primacy only by winning 88 seats in 2013 compared to 79 in 2008 as the rest of the barisan collapsed.

Should Khairy win, which looks likely, and should Mukhriz lose, which looks somewhat less likely, Kuala Lumpur sources say, that raises the question whether Mahathir and his allies will go after Najib's scalp. He has already become the target of a wide range of Mahathir-aligned bloggers demanding his ouster. He has also been crippled not only by the Barisan's relative loss but by a long-running scandal over the seven-year-old murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian woman by two of his bodyguards. After years of stalled appeals, the two bodyguards were freed by an appellate court in August, a move that has had many UMNO figures "holding our noses," said one.

Najib also shocked many party stalwarts by recently reappointing Shahrizat Abdul Jalil a special advisor to the Prime Minister on women's affairs, a ministerial position. While she is said to be extremely popular with the women's wing of the party, she was forced to step down as a senator amid allegations that members of her family had misused funds* from the National Feedlot Corporation, a publicly funded project to rear cattle by halal, or Islamic religious methods.

The scandal became universally known as Cowgate. Mohamad Salleh Ismail, Shahrizat's husband was charged with two counts of criminal breach of trust as well as misusing nearly RM50 million of a RM250 million soft loan to pay for expensive overseas trips, a Mercedes limousine and luxury apartments. Although he was arrested more than 18 months ago, Mohamad has yet to face a day in court on trial.

Shahrizat defending her post as women's wing chief in the upcoming polls against Wanita chief post in the upcoming Umno polls against Azalina Othman Said, a former television talk show host, adviser to a variety of associations and a member of Sisters in Islam, which fights for Muslim women's rights and equality - and a Badawi appointee as Youth and Sports Minister from 2004 to 2008.

"What you must remember is that even though the Barisan didn't do well, UMNO did come back with more seats in parliament than previously, and Najib did that," said a think tank operator in Kuala Lumpur. "He won the election without Chinese votes. What he has to do is look after the majority of Malays, have to ringfence them, secure them. What happens in these elections is going to be very interesting. It has far bigger implications for what the Chinese are going to do."

* Correction.Mohamad Salleh Ismail was charged with criminal breach of trust but was not jailed. Asia Sentinel regrets the error.