Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to lead the United Malays National Organization on Dec. 8 into what could become the party’s most contentious annual general meeting since the 1980s, when then-Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah unsuccessfully challenged Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad within the party.
Traditionally, UMNO politics is about all the politics that matter in Malaysia. The ethnic Chinese and Indian parties that make up the ruling Barisan Nasional, along with parties in Sabah and Sarawak, largely do UMNO’s bidding. The opposition coalition led by the now-imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim fractured badly with the departure of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia over religious issues after winning the popular vote in the 2013 general election and has ceased to exist as an effective force.
If Najib makes it easily through the four-day conclave in Kuala Lumpur, the widespread expectation is that he will be able to coast all the way to general elections that are expected by April 2018 at the latest.
Although Najib goes into the meeting seemingly in full control, he may end up in a donnybrook over the scandals that surround his government. He has been the subject of deeply incriminating stories in many international publications but he has beaten back all criticisms by turning to his ethnic Malay base, which comprises more than 60 percent of the country, charging that the allegations are part of an anti-democratic plot to oust him.
The unspoken narrative is that the plot is led by the 23 percent of citizens who are Chinese, and who control the economic ramparts. He has answered by pushing through a national security law that would allow a security council to order the arrest of anybody, in any part of the country, without recourse to legal defense.
Rank & file erosion?
However, his relationship with the party rank and file has been deteriorating. In the face of a possible party uprising, he has postponed intraparty elections for 18 months. He has forbidden his fired Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, from addressing the 5,000-plus members of the parley despite the fact that Muhyiddin would normally be allowed to speak given his continuing position as deputy UMNO president.
Najib has also sacked critical delegates including Hamida Osman, the former information chief of Wanita, the women’s wing and a Wanita division chief, and punished seven party leaders including Muhyiddin for questioning him over allegations of corruption. He ordered the ouster of Anina Saadudin, a delegate from Langkawi, after she accused him of “pissing on the heads of 3 million UMNO members” by not resigning in the face of the corruption charges.
The magic number is 192
Nonetheless, the common wisdom is that Najib is insulated from losing his job because of the vast amounts of largesse he bestows on the 192 cadres who vote for his position as party president – up to RM1 million (US$237,000 at current rates) to potentially rebellious party leaders such as Shahrir Samad, the distinguished leader of the parliamentary backbenchers. He has ordered all speeches at the AGM to be vetted before they are delivered to make sure no accidents happen.
But, said Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob, an UMNO member and ally of Mahathir, Najib’s fiercest critic: “Najib has moved decisively to punish UMNO members who show disloyalty to him but it has only served to inflame the fire at the grassroots level nationwide. It appears that everything is calm but the undercurrents are strong. This AGM could be the curtain-raiser to internal UMNO war rather than a seal of approval for Najib and his loyalists.”