Umno, stalled juggernaut of Malaysian politics, faces leadership dilemma
- Party that ruled for 61 years before being toppled by Pakatan Harapan in 2018 is struggling to regain momentum amid corruption cases that have dogged leaders
- As the country struggles with record levels of Covid-19, an intra-party battle is on. Grass roots leaders say: choose a new leader who can start afresh, or continue and risk losing even more members
While Umno remains popular with Malay voters, the party is fractured, wracked with internal rivalries and has a party president who faces corruption charges involving millions of ringgit.
Umno, which until it lost power had accounted for every prime minister in Malaysia since the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957, now faces the choice of choosing a leader who could clean-up the party and give it a fresh start or continuing with its current crop of leaders and face stagnation or decline, grass roots leaders say.
A senior grass-roots leader told This Week in Asia Umno could “lose many voters” in the next general election if its current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were re-elected.
“If Zahid wins, members would quit the party by the thousands, I’m sure of that … if there is no change in Umno,” said the grass roots leader, adding that only a new president would be able to “fix” the party.
“Umno, or more specifically Umno members, should change its ways and some of its older leadership in order to become relevant and to be trusted again by the people. That’s the only choice they have now,” said the leader.
Zahid, a popular figure within the party, is on trial facing a total of 47 charges – 12 for criminal breach of trust, eight for corruption and 27 for money-laundering involving millions of ringgit at a charity foundation.
Zahid has denied all charges and is widely expected to defend his presidency in Umno.
The grass roots leader said reformist members wanted “a new generation of leadership in Umno” as they had a much “better understanding” of “the current needs of the people”.
“We need young blood. As simple as that. That is how Umno will be revamped. Otherwise there’ll be the same rhetorical method that ultimately will weaken Umno as we progress,” said the grass roots leader.
He named Khairy Jamaluddin, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, and the Umno Youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki as potential leaders from the younger generation.
Prominent political blogger Kadir Jasin said it was “unlikely” younger members would take over Umno’s leadership.
A senior Umno Member of Parliament, Mohamed Nazri Aziz, told This Week in Asia it was “unethical” for members who were facing corruption charges to stand for election.
“It is not morally correct for someone who has been charged [or is on trial in court] to offer themselves as a candidate for the Umno presidency. Nobody will respect us,” Nazri said.
“[Zahid] is dragging the party down,” Nazri added.
“Most importantly, we are not just choosing the party president. We are offering the person as the country’s prime minister,” said Nazri, who called for Zahid to step down in April and let his deputy Mohamad Hasan take over.
“Yes, we’ve heard talk he wants to run. While he can stand for party elections, he cannot run in the general elections due to his legal case and we cannot offer him as a candidate for prime minister,” said Nazri.
Najib was popular on social media, Nazri added, but “I don’t know about his popularity within the party.”
Umno holds a party election once every three years and a vote is due this year. Nazri hoped an election would be held this year, but said it could not be “held right now because of the pandemic”.
The last party election was in June 2018, when Zahid won.
Analysts, however, were more upbeat over Zahid’s prospects for re-election.
“I frankly don’t think there is much resistance to this, except for those self-appointed enlightened members who have a political fetish against the party being tainted by Zahid’s charges. He still stands a high chance as he goes along with the grass roots sentiments,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Oh was Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011.
Azmi Hassan, a political analyst at University Technology of Malaysia, said Zahid still had control of Umno via the divisional leaders who were “very supportive” of his leadership.
While some groups were “very reluctant to see Zahid stand” because of his court case, others wanted to see him run as he had “the support of the grass roots”, Azmi added.
Azmi thought internal elections were unlikely amid the pandemic. “I am also of the opinion Umno will be going into GE15 [the 15th general election] with Zahid as president. That I am sure of.”
While Umno is part of the Perikatan Nasional coalition, the ties between Umno and Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party are strained. A major sticking point is the defection of some 13 Umno MPs to Bersatu.
Umno won 54 seats in the 2018 elections but the defections have since whittled them down to 38. Bersatu currently has 31 MPs in the 222 seat parliament.
This is the first time Umno has been part of a ruling coalition but not at the helm of the government.
Umno views the defections as betrayals and has said it will not work with Bersatu in the next general election. Instead it will contest the vote on its own.
Muhyiddin has said an election will be held when the pandemic situation improves.
Malaysia is currently facing an upsurge in Covid-19 infections, posting a record of 7,478 new cases on Wednesday.
Splintered in 3
Umno was currently split into three factions, said Oh, with the Zahid-Najib faction advocating an eventual split with Bersatu, and “apparently echoing widespread grass roots sentiments in doing so”.
The second faction was led by Federal Territory Minister Annuar Musa and MP Shahidan Kassim, who advocated accommodating Bersatu but lacked grass roots support.
The third group was a “very loose faction of ambitious figures” led by Khairy and Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who were “constantly lurking to clinch the top leadership and hopefully the premiership,” Oh said.
Khairy, 45, ran for the presidency in 2018. The Oxford University-educated Khairy is expected to stand again this time round.
Hishammuddin, 59, comes from the Malaysian aristocracy. His grandfather, Onn Jaafar, was the founder of Umno. His late father, Hussein Onn, was the country’s third prime minister.
A lawyer trained in Britain, the sophisticated Hishammuddin is also a former defence minister.
Umno MP Nazri Aziz said he supported Hishammuddin, who had an “even chance of being elected”.
“But we have to work hard,” said Nazri.
Hishammuddin was someone who understood democracy and what it demanded, he said. “He has the confidence of foreign investors, which is important for our economy,” said Nazri.
Other candidates expected to contest the presidency include current Umno deputy president, Mohamad Hassan, who is popular and well-respected as he has not been accused of corruption.
Umno remained the “party of choice” for Malays and was expected to retain the 54 “seats it won in 2018”, said Oh.
Nazri said the party was aiming to win 70 to 80 seats in the next election.
Blogger Kadir said Umno was weaker now than during the 2018 elections.
“[Back then voters] kicked out Umno and the Barisan Nasional coalition on hearsay of Najib’s corruption. Now it’s been proven,” said Kadir.
“But Umno will regain support if the court cluster is banished from its leadership,” said Kadir, referring to the party leaders facing corruption trials.
If Umno could co-opt the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party for the next general elections by not running candidates against each other, “Umno could even do much better” as other Malay parties were not likely to put up an “effective fight” against Umno’s “electoral juggernaut”, said Oh.
Malay voters had “more confidence in Umno” than in the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, said Azmi of University Technology of Malaysia.
“Not that Umno is that strong, but because of weaknesses in Perikatan Nasional currently, and also the weaknesses of Pakatan Harapan during their 22 month tenure as the government,” said Azmi.
While Umno was expected to perform well in the next general election, it was unlikely to win an absolute majority in parliament and would have to work with other parties if it wanted to form a ruling government, analysts said.
In a close race, Umno would need to reach out to Gabungan Parti Sarawak, which has 17 MPs.
If that happened, Gabungan Parti Sarawak was likely to back Umno and the party’s president would become prime minister, said Azmi.
“I think the kingmaker will be Gabungan Parti Sarawak, which has the numbers to decide who will be prime minister. Probably they will back Zahid as Anwar and Sarawak have bad political history,” said Azmi.
Oh said many East Malaysians viewed Mahathir and Anwar “rather negatively” as they felt their rights had been curtailed when the two men were in Umno as internal affairs in the two states had come under interference from the federal government.