Malaysia's Premier Political Party in Decline

Corruption, infighting, ambition take their toll on UMNO

By: Murray Hunter

The United Malays National Organization, for 70 years Malaysia’s dominant political party until its reign collapsed in a welter of corruption in the May 2018 general election, is once again deeply split, fractured between the party grassroots, the Supreme Council or central party governing body, and the parliamentary caucus.

In addition, both the supreme council and parliamentary members also are split about which is the best way forward. Some states are controlled by warlords who are acting quasi-independently, harboring their own rifts and divisions at the state level.

UMNO from the outside looks like a party about to break apart, its share of the national primary vote in long decay over the past 15 years. Although by-elections following Pakatan Harapan’s general election win have masked the party’s decline, it continues. Ironically, former Prime Minister Najib Razak dominated the by-election campaigns despite his arrest on multiple charges of corruption with his popular “Bossku” persona to which supporters remain loyal. Najib still has 4.5 million fans on his Facebook page and 4.2 million followers on his Twitter account, many times more than any other Malaysian politician.

Although immediately after UMNO’s 2018 drubbing, there was talk of reform. Party elections later that year saw both Khairy Jamaluddin, representing reform, and Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah, representing a return to a clean conservative UMNO, failing to dislodge Party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Like Najib, Zahid faces scores of charges of corruption and is vigorously campaigning while facing trial. That indicates that the party will maintain the Malay-centric narratives and persona of corruption. Any reform is totally off the agenda. This has prevented a united UMNO and set up deep divisions on which way the party should head.

Major Opportunity Missed

UMNO lost a major opportunity to regain power during the Muhyiddin-Azmin Ali Sheraton Putsch which ended the Pakatan Harapan government when Mahathir resigned as prime minister. If Zahid had held out on support for the move, Zahid or Anwar would be prime minister today. It was a risk Zahid didn’t take, and which cost dearly.

If Zahid had supported the putsch, UMNO would be the incumbent government. If Anwar had kept Pakatan Harapan together and become prime minister, UMNO could have sat back in opposition with its confederate Parti Islam se-Malaysia, knowing their combined strength would inevitably return them to power in the next general election.

Muhyiddin took advantage of a divided UMNO and appointed 17 UMNO ministers and deputy ministers from outside the party leadership structure to his cabinet, effectively disconnecting a large segment of the party’s MPs from the influence of their party leadership. That severely fractured the party and undermined whatever personal authority Zahid’s had given the corruption charges against him.

Zahid’s July 8 announcement withdrawing UMNO’s support for Muhyiddin’s government after Muhyiddin in effect hijacked two senior confederates – Ismail Sabri Yaakob as deputy prime minister, and Hishammuddin Hussein as a senior minister, showed Zahid as a paper tiger.

It is tempting to describe Zahid as a dead man walking, but a recent court decision allowing former federal territories minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor leave to appeal his conviction for corruption can be seen as a subliminal message to the UMNO “court cluster,” so called because so many leaders face charges, that a deal can be done.

UMNO in a Chaotic Position

UMNO MPs really don’t know where they can go. The deeply divided supreme council now has little control over the parliamentary wing. Thus the party is without a strategy, or even a mission on which to frame a strategy.

PAS’s divergence from UMNO and continuing support for Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional government has put UMNO into a corner, with Zahid publicly dismissing any cooperation with the prime minister’s coalition-leading Parti Pribumi Bersatu or with opposition leader Anwar or the Chinese-dominated opposition Democratic Action Party. Most UMNO MPs still support Muhyiddin’s government, even taking up new positions.

This appears to leave UMNO fragmented and in the wilderness. Any hopes that the new deputy prime minister will succeed Muhyiddin, should he resign for any health reasons, are totally uncertain. The position of deputy prime minister is largely symbolic, rather than putting him next in line to the prime ministership.

The party grassroots, nominally three million members, have faith that UMNO can rise again and win the next election. One party bloc headed by Tajuddin Rahman and Annuar Musa is trying to save UMNO so the party can play a major role within a larger Malay bloc in the parliament. They believe that eventually will enable UMNO to again join the government in a coalition of their choosing, which they can command.

However, some believe this requires the abandonment of the “court cluster” with Najib actually still extremely popular with the grassroots and seen as a victim of political persecution by Mahathir. Muhyiddin is also carrying this card up his sleeve, but playing hardball against Najib, who dismissed him as deputy prime minister in 2016.

Thus two narratives are going on within UMNO today, one dominated by Zahid and the other is by Hishammuddin. Zahid, popular and influential at the party level despite the corruption charges, is seen as a defender of the Ketuanan Melayu cause. Hishammuddin is pursuing a practical narrative of flexibility and is more influential with the MPs.

This is where being pragmatic is more important than ideology. Zahid’s supposedly secret talks with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat indicate that the best deal is being sorted. Hishammuddin’s past kris- waving antics at a party convention, viewed as a naked threat of violence against non-Malays, also indicated that pragmatism can go the other way too.

So, for UMNO, all bets are on.

The Options for UMNO

UMNO has three options. The first is to continue supporting Bersatu, the easiest option, until the next general election, at which time it could go all out to take back as many constituencies as possible from Muhyiddin’s Bersatu.

The second option is to support Anwar’s opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, which would be full of all sorts of complexities. Only a small percentage of UMNO MPs would likely go along, and the grassroots would be dead set against. It could unnecessarily split the party permanently.

Thirdly, UMNO could go alone in parliament as an independent party and let Muhyiddin remain as a minority government. It looks like UMNO will fumble through and continue to make contradictory moves and statements. Whatever the course, it can no longer dominate the parliament, as there are now too many players competing for the same Malay electorate. UMNO has no interest in broadening its appeal to other constituencies. So this restricts it as kingmaker, and sometimes the king, if it is lucky.

The perception that UMNO is a party for opportunists, wealth seekers, power and refuge from jail will remain in the urban areas. In the rural areas, it will likely remain a tarnished Robin Hood, wearing last season’s outfits. Cash is important to run their election machinery. Consequently, UMNO will still pack some punch, but it is not the heavyweight it once was.

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