UMNO goes for the Status Quo

Malaysia’s intraparty elections for the United Malays National Organization, which concluded over the weekend, have resulted in a resurrection of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who was all but given up as finished in the wake of the May 5 election debacle.

The party has been struggling with its identity since the election, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote by a 50.87-47.38 percent split to the Pakatan Rakyat coalition headed by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. The Barisan returned to the majority with a diminished 133 seats to the opposition’s 89 only because of gerrymandering. Najib was blamed for the debacle by party stalwarts led by and egged on by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Nonetheless, within the party, Najib has emerged as the rejuvenated leader of a fractured organization. His candidates for the party’s top seven slots – president, deputy president, three vice president, youth leader and women’s leader – all were returned to office, most by healthy margins, as were his members of the party’s Supreme Council.

But the question is whether the decision by 145,000 of the party faithful to return them to office was a pyrrhic victory.

“UMNO has not changed. Money still talks,” said an embittered anti-Najib source who described himself as a 20-year member of the party. “Political corruption is rampant. These elections point to a party that is dying and could very well lose the next national elections.”

That was a reference to the fact that Najib’s forces appear to have poured vast amounts of money into buying votes at the district level to ensure that his candidates won. The vote-buying was termed a “golden storm” by party insiders, with votes going for as much as RM300 each.

Najib and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, were unopposed in the party elections. However, an unofficial “Mahathir slate” developed for other positions. Particularly, Mahathir was pushing to make his son, Mukhriz, the 49-year-old chief minister of Kedah, one of the three vice presidents, which would have been viewed as a springboard to eventually go for the party presidency and premiership. Mukhriz finished fourth.

Party insiders say the danger is that the 88-year-old Mahathir could stage an all-out attack on Najib, as he did on Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, after poor electoral results that cost the party its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008. Already, a legion of bloggers aligned with Mahathir has been on a rampage against Najib. However, the betting is that since Mahathir has no allies in senior positions in the party, his ability to do much damage is probably limited. Such a move obviously would also exacerbate the schisms in the party that are already there.

Among the winners, the most significant included Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has drawn close to Najib after previously being regarded as a pariah by much of the UMNO rank and file. Khairy was returned as head of the party’s youth wing despite the fact that he was Mahathir’s particular bête noire.

Also returned to power was Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who was forced to step down last year as a senator amid allegations that members of her family had looted 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 trial. Despite the scandal, Shahrizat finished easily ahead of two other candidates.

The vote leader in the vice presidential ranks was Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the flamboyant home minister , who in recent weeks has made headlines by adopting a shoot-first ask questions policy for the police in seeking to quell rising crime, and by making inflammatory statements about Malay nationalism that have alienated many of the country’s sizeable Chinese minority.

“The maintenance of the status quo not only signals that UMNO doesn’t want reform, it also sends danger signals that someone like Zahid is next in line for the deputy prime minister’s job, given that Muhyiddin is a good six years older than Najib and has privately indicated that this is his last term,” another longtime political observer said in Kuala Lumpur. “That can be frightening as not only has his right wing rhetoric spooked the non-Malays, it has also spooked the rational Malays and also neighboring country diplomats. Then the next thing is the wrath of your friend Mahathir. He is not going to sit quietly if his son loses.”

An angry source in the Mahathir wing of the party said that “stories of Team Najib or Team Pak Lah (Badawi) vs. Mahathir make fun reading, but the real issue is votes to the highest bidder.” Nonetheless, it is clear that despite polls that show the elder Mahathir is admired by 75 percent of the party – the highest approval rating for anybody in UMNO – his status has been diminished within the party.

Does this give Najib the impetus to reemphasize his 1Malaysia strategy of loosening the economic bonds that deliver the spoils to ethnic Malays and hamper the economy? Probably not. The Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Program, somewhat derisively called the BEEP, which was announced on Sept. 14, represented a significant turn away from economic liberalization and has been derided as a program that will enrich more of the party’s cronies.

“If I had a headline for this, it would be: Najib and Khairy win big,” said a longtime Malay political analyst. “Mahathir can still make noise but all the President’s men won - both at the vice president and Supreme Council level. Mahathir's son is almost yesterday's story in UMNO’s unforgiving culture and Khairy doesn't have to worry about a succession threat from Mukhriz. Will Najib use this mandate to do something now? No, it's not in his DNA. So the bottom line, the results don’t mean f***-all to the country.”

If anything, the inflammatory rhetoric from Malay nationalists will resume against the Chinese minority, which continues to command the economic heights in the country. The party’s annual general meeting, expected on the week of Dec. 2-7, can be expected to be five days of inflammatory chest-beating in a bid to energize the party’s base.

“While those sentiments will continue, with the majority of Malays across the board, the fact remains that the Malay electorate is sick of corrupt leaders that have only self-serving agendas,” said the source in the Mahathir wing of the party. “Najib, Zahid, Hisham, Khairy, Shahrizat, Nazri etc. You will find that in the next elections Malays will reject them all nationwide. There will be destabilization at the Malay core. Good luck to all.”