Losers in Search of Survival Strategies – Malaysia’s UMNO Licking its Wounds

Partyforumseasia:  After six decades in power, not only the ruling UMNO party could no longer imagine to lose an election. As usual they had done everything to make sure they would win another mandate, especially by financial largesse with the traditional vote banks like 1.6 million civil servants or rural settlers on land distributed by earlier governments. The political guru community, including Partyforumseasia, was also believing that the Barisan Nasional (National Front or BN) could not afford to lose, because its internal money cascade, fed by contracts and a huge network of Government Linked Companies (GLCs), would create havoc for the country’s economy. Everybody was wrong, including the opposition, which had not really imagined that they could win so decisively. But, against all pessimists, the regime change was home-made and opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in only hours after the election result was out. At the age of 93, the reactivated statesman is now the oldest chief of government in the world.

The signs of a possible defeat had been on the wall since 2008, though, when the results started to nosedive and money politics and the heaviest geryymandering did not work as planned any more in the British-inherited first-past-the-post electoral system. The May 9, 2018 results were 113 seats for the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) opposition coalition (+45) and 79 (-54) for the losing BN coalition.

Ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak conceded the defeat fast and sort of graciously enough, but also tried to leave the country. Citizens rushed to the airport to prevent that, but soon the new government banned him from leaving. When police investigated a number of Najib’s houses in Kuala Lumpur, the worst suspicions of the citizens were topped by what they found. Confiscated cash and valuables amounted to RM 702 million or US$ 170 million. Especially the notoriously spendthrift wife of the ex-PM was exposed as a colossal liability. But above all, the ongoing investigations in the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB turned out to be a deeper reason for many faithful Malay UMNO voters to vote for the opposition in order to get rid of Najib. In post-election polls many of them admitted that they were disappointed with the party because of the blatant corruption on all levels.












Is there a way out? First results of the party convention last weekend:

As usual, election losers are also losing their appeal to members and supporters. Defectors have joined the new government coalition, among them five elected UMNO law makers and rather prominent party figures, including two former ministers. Since practically all signs of the ongoing international investigations, searching for evaporated billions of US$, are pointing toward Najib. The regionally unmatched* extent of money politics by UMNO and its cronies might even lead to the deregistration of the party. Najib maintains that he is innocent which may not even be formally incorrect because party finances are practically unregulated in Malaysia. But he is charged with numerous counts of breach of trust and others, his wife as well. Free on bail, he is still participating in UMNO activities and even enjoys support from party members, but too many Malaysians are expecting to see him in jail. Assets and accounts of the party are frozen, and more party leaders may be indicted.

The deregistration is a warning by UMNO strongman and former deputy chairman and deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who took over when Najib resigned a few days after the election. Whether this will prevent further defections or even increase them is unclear at the moment, but the party leadership made unity a priority during the party convention which ended Sunday 30 September. One instrument to retrieve some funds will be to ask defectors to pay back their campaign expenses shouldered by the party. The call to give back their mandates will be in vain because this is not in the electoral rules and regulations.

All but two of the formerly twelve component parties have left the BN-coalition, and a closer partnership with the second Malay party, Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is being discussed without a consensus in sight. The openly Islamist PAS which, among others, campaigns for the extension of Shariah punishments, has been a long-term competitor of UMNO for the same voter spectrum, predominantly conservative rural Malays. Unlike the money obsessed UMNO, PAS has managed to keep a frugal image, but even together the two parties have no power perspective.
More confusing for the 5,700 delegates of the weekend convention were ideas of a rapprochement with the new Pakatan Harapan government and a possible “unity government”, ventured by Zahid. It sounds unreal, but the new Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has been UMNO president for more than twenty years and he was the one who made it as strong as it was before Najib ruined it, mainly with the huge 1MDB finance scandal and the way he managed to hide details for three years. Media and politicians are soul searching by now how they could believe the excuses of Najib, that the 700 million US$ in his private accounts were a donation by Saudi royalty…

The closing speech of chairman Zahid Hamidi on Sunday revealed that his attempt to unify the party is anything but finished. He urged the party to respect the decisions of the supreme council. “We want to bring UMNO back to life. Don’t poke holes in the ship and let it sink. If that’s the case, then you are a traitor to the party. Have some decorum when you want to criticise. This is Zahid, full stop.” This quotation has been published by the Star newspaper, belonging to the remaining component party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) which won only one seat in the May election. Without the power of unlimited political funding and the money cascades being distributed by Government Linked Companies (GLCs), an authoritarian leadership style will be difficult to uphold. And having the ambitious former youth leader and former minister in Najib’s cabinet, Khairul Jamaluddin, who ran for the presidency without success, on his heels, Zahid will have to struggle to keep the party together.

Political activities on the ground are continuing nevertheless. Anwar Ibrahim, pardoned by the King and released from a longer prison term for alleged sodomy, has made peace with his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, and is supposed to succeed him as Prime Minister within the next two years. He is campaigning now in a by-election in Port Dickson to join parliament and qualify for the succession. UMNO has declared to boycott this by-election, but Anwar will face six other candidates, among them the former aide who pretended being sodomised by Anwar…

* For a regional overview on money politics in Southeast Asia see: 10726.cover

ISBN: 978-981-3230-73-6

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