With the United Malays National Organization’s annual general meeting safely out of the way last week and with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the saddle as expected, the opposition led by dumped Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Premier Mahathir Mohamad is expected to set off on a new course. Some are calling it guerrilla war.
The four-day conclave was programmed down to the last speaker and lunch menu to make sure that Muhyiddin, Mahathir and other dissidents didn’t have a chance to upset anything despite huge controversies over dual scandals involving Najib’s personal finances and massive debt owed by the state backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund.
A political insider said the opposition is planning a two-pronged strategy, working on the grassroots to persuade the 30,000 branch chiefs to abandon the prime minister. That is said to include printing books detailing corruption, pamphlets, accounts of swindles and holding ceramahs —“lectures,” as political rallies are technically outlawed.
The second prong – a longer shot – is to prepare the ground for eventual party elections, which were delayed earlier this year by Najib to avoid a challenge. A pro-Najib blog identified a so-called “5M” slate headed by Muhyiddin to take on Najib in 2018 when party elections are scheduled, although that seems unlikely. At 67, Muhyiddin would be almost 70 and he expressed a desire to retire before the current controversy made him a lightning rod.
Nonetheless, the attrition campaign, as some political observers call it, risks the most dangerous splits in UMNO since the 1980s when Mahathir and onetime Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah succeeded in splitting the party in two in a power struggle that was subsequently healed. This could be worse, a scorched-earth drive aimed at the 3 million UMNO members across the country. Muhyiddin’s forces are said to be planning across the country to try to persuade the members to abandon Najib and the leadership of the party.
“I think UMNO is finished,” said a Malay source. “The party is wrecked.”
There is already spreading disillusion in urban ranks over corruption and the antics of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, who has openly flaunted vast wealth. Malay support – the backbone of the party – has fallen to 31 percent, according to the most recent Merdeka Centre poll, driving UMNO to make common cause with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based Islamic fundamentalist party. Chinese support has fallen to less than 5 percent.
Nonetheless, none of the 192 cadres who vote Najib’s fate at the top of UMNO have budged despite the multiple scandals. So Mahathir, Muhyiddin, cashiered Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal and others have begun a war of attrition, going to grassroots members throughout the country in an attempt to persuade them that Najib and his associates have to go or the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition led by UMNO, will lose the next general election.