New Hope for Malaysia’s Defeated UMNO Party?

The sea-changing landslide defeat of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in May last year was mainly triggered by the loss of trust in its chairman and Prime Minister Najib Razak with more and more revelations concerning the 1MDB financial scandal. Najib is indicted with numerous accusations but still free on bail and still pretending that he didn’t do anything wrong. But UMNO, after more than half a century in power and enjoying quasi-unlimited access to funds via its tight control over a government-linked company empire, seemed to disintegrate quickly. Its Barisan Nasional (or National Front) coalition lost ten of the formerly 13 component parties which had contributed ethnic minority votes for decades. After initially 17 defected MPs, Umno remains with 38 in the 222 seat parliament and the remaining BN partners Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress with one each.

For the remaining UMNO MPs, switching into one of the new ruling coalition parties is not as easy as party switching used to be in Malaysia before. They are seen as opportunists in both camps, and the few who are trying to move back into UMNO are seen as traitors. There are even calls for banning party hopping or going independent altogether.

Left: Party switching in the 1970s…

Yesterday, Saturday, 26 of January, the low morale of UMNO and BN has been boosted for the first time after the defeat. After four lost by-elections, BN managed to win the fifth one in a rural constituency in Cameron Highlands. The winner is Mr. Ramli Mohamed Nor, a retired senior police officer. He won convincingly with 12,038 votes against the 8,800 of the Pakatan Harapan coalition’s competitor. He is also the first MP from the 180,000 strong ethnic minority called “orang asli” or original indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia. In the race-based political system of the country, the orang asli have long been treated as somewhat minor like the ethnic groups in the Malaysian federal states on Borneo island but were more and more integrated as welcome voters for UMNO.

Apart from the orang asli success, the results also show that UMNO could win this by-election because the second Malay and Muslim Party PAS stayed out and supported UMNO. Their joint future can only be secured by co-operation despite they both target the same voter pool. And the election is a boost to UMNO’s survival instinct, and, at the same time, a warning to the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that the honeymoon is over and they have to deliver on the promises.

Below: Former UMNO president Najib Razak with PAS leader Hadi Awang

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