Malaysia’s UMNO: Leadership, Warlords, Members, and what keeps them together

Malaysia votesPartyforumseasia: Intense reporting about the election on 5 May brings up a rare glimpse into the structure and internal workings of the ruling party. Here is some information about a membership of more than three million, 20.000 branches etc., but also about the power of grassroot leaders, often called warlords in UMNO. See the revealing article of assistant foreign editor Reme Ahmad in the Straits Times of 3 May 2013.
Here are some key assessments:

“These warlords are a kind of pseudo-godfather…(…) The chiefs get financial allocations from the party and government. (…) In return, they deliver votes for Umno and its Barisan Nasional coalition…These warlords have to be kept happy (…) as they can otherwise sabotage candidates who are parachuted in.
In this election, the wrath of the warlords was on full display when Prime Minister Najib Razak shoehorned his own “winnable” candidates into many constituencies…(…)
In Umno, each of the 191 divisions has hundreds of branches, with total party membership at 3.2 million people. Keeping the branches loyal includes dishing out small projects, and this is where allegations of corruption and the overpricing of projects arise. (…) During the general election and by-elections, disaffected warlords have at times sabotaged their own party (…). Other warlords are known to have told supporters to vote for the other side. To reduce internal mischief, troublesome local leaders are often “given goodies”…
But UMNO is also reforming itself. Obviously in order to reduce money politics and vote buying in the internal elections, 100,000 members instead of the former 2,500 division delegates will elect the party chief later this year. Reme Ahmad comments: “The thinking is that it would be impossible to buy the loyalty of so many people.”

Party loyalty, of course, hardly comes without any material incentives, be it just power or all sorts of other perks. But the Southeast Asian practice of pork barrel politics has reached quite spectacular levels.
Umno structure 2013

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