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Two men stand in front of a wall of pictures of Malaysian leaders at the Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

‘Umno’s beauty is its embrace of diversity’: Malaysia’s biggest party meets amid divisions over backing PM Muhyiddin

  • All eyes on Umno’s annual general meeting this weekend, with analysts looking to see whether it will keep supporting the embattled Perikatan Nasional alliance
  • Influential youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki has dismissed talk of fission, though there is a faction still loyal to Muhyiddin
Malaysia’s parliament is suspended, a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has yet to abate, and there is no indication that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will press ahead with his previously stated plans to hold an election once the ongoing state of emergency expires in August. 

Yet there is a palpable sense of an uptick in political activity across the country as heavyweights begin planning for the impending polls. 

This weekend, the nation’s eyes will be on the annual general meeting of the grand old dame of Malaysian politics, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). 

The conclave, to be held with pandemic restrictions and with only senior leaders attending, is of particular interest to observers given questions about Umno’s strategy for the polls. It is the biggest party in Muhyiddin’s ruling Perikatan Nasional alliance, but there is sharp division over whether that status should continue. 

One faction, comprising current Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his key ally, ex-prime minister Najib Razak, is believed to prefer to go it alone at the polls – with the hope that the party can regain its status as Malaysia’s undisputed No 1 political force. 

The Umno-led Barisan Nasional alliance – helmed by consecutive Umno prime ministers – governed the country for 61 uninterrupted years until a shock defeat in the 2018 polls

On the other end of the spectrum, there are members in Umno who hope to continue cooperating with Muhyiddin, a defector from the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance that was elected in 2018. The prime minister gained power last year by staging a self-coup against his former allies, pulling the Bersatu party to which he belonged out of Pakatan Harapan in the process. 

Umno is the biggest party in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s ruling Perikatan Nasional alliance. Photo: Reuters

In the lead-up to the two-day Umno meeting this weekend, top leaders have stressed that there will not be fireworks, with the focus solely on preparations for the polls. 

The party’s influential youth chief, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, told This Week in Asia it was “natural” that the weekend meeting was regarded as a political must-see event in the country. 

He described Umno as being a “small part” of Muhyiddin’s administration – though it contributes the most MPs to the ruling alliance – but added that the party “still has significant influence in determining the state of the nation”. 

“I believe the policy suggestions and the resolutions decided by the delegates this weekend will be anticipated by all, especially [the discussions] on the party’s preparations to face the general election,” said Asyraf, who previously served as a deputy minister during Najib’s tenure as premier.

Political observers were less coy about their expectations for the meeting, which in past years have tended to be carnivalesque affairs. 

This weekend’s meeting – at the party’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur – is being held for the first time since 2019 owing to the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Umno is believed to have some 3 million members, making it by far the biggest political organisation by size in the country of 32 million people. 

Muhamad Nadzri Noor, a political scientist with the National University of Malaysia, said he believed Zahid would use the meeting to emphatically state that there would be no cooperation with Muhyiddin at the coming polls. 

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is at odds with Muhyiddin over Umno being made to play second fiddle to the prime minister’s Bersatu party. Photo: Xinhua

Zahid and Najib – among the Umno leaders who were put on trial for corruption following their 2018 election defeat – are at odds with Muhyiddin over the party purportedly being made to play second fiddle within the alliance to the prime minister’s smaller Bersatu party. 

These Umno leaders had previously demanded the deputy prime ministership – a request to which Muhyiddin is believed to have agreed, with the condition that the position should not be held by Zahid because of his ongoing criminal trial. 

“In this situation, I predict that Umno and Barisan Nasional under the influence of the party president will officially announce the rejection of cooperation with Bersatu and Perikatan Nasional for the upcoming general elections, inexplicably showing that their cooperation was temporary,” Nadzri said. 

Azmi Khalid, an observer of local political and economic affairs, said he believed there would be at least some discussions on a future beyond the current Najib-Zahid leadership regime.

With both leaders viewed as “tainted” owing to their corruption cases, the party urgently needed to strategise about whether to “include them in the party constitutionally or leave them by the wayside”, he said, adding that there were signs of concern about their blemished reputations from within the two leaders’ own camps.

Nonetheless, other analysts said that those who were hoping for immediate answers as to the party’s future were unlikely to get them this weekend. 

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, a senior associate with the political and policy risk consultancy Vriens and Partners, said the infighting would likely remain for now. 

Umno supporters during the party’s anniversary celebrations in 2017. Photo: AFP

“A small faction within Umno is currently lobbying hard for the party to continue their alliance with Bersatu and, by extension, the Perikatan Nasional ruling coalition,” he said. “While the pro-Bersatu Umno lobby will likely make their case known during the [meeting], we can expect Zahid to exert his authority.”

Asyraf, Umno’s youth chief, was dismissive of the supposed fission in the party when questions about it were put to him. Instead, he said the “beauty” of the Umno AGM was that it best exemplified how the party was in fact a broad-based organisation that embraced diversity. 

“Delegates with the mandate from the ground can ask openly and criticise the leadership within the context of the theme of the year, and when the delegates have decided and voted on a specific resolution, the party will stick to it, from top leadership to the ground,” he said. 

“The Umno AGM all this while – since the beginning – has been the point of unity for all members, regardless of differences.”

Analysts expect a myriad of other issues to be discussed, including Umno’s relationship with the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The two parties, once rivals, forged a formal alliance in the aftermath of the 2018 polls as part of efforts to boost support among Malays. 

PAS is, however, also part of Muhyiddin’s ruling Perikatan Nasional, and has so far indicated that it backs the prime minister’s leadership. Asyraf said Umno hoped to “hold and strengthen” its relationship with PAS. 

Analyst Shazwan said for now it was Zahid who would chart the course on such matters, adding that if the former deputy prime minister was able to prove that he had a plan to lift the party out of its current doldrums and back to its past glories, the rank and file were likely to abide by his strategy.