The Trappings of Leadership Succession in Malaysia
Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party which dominated the country’s politics for six decades, is trying to digest and hopes to overcome its worst election result ever. With the reliable support of ethnic minority parties, the predominantly Malay UMNO used to enjoy stable absolute majorities. After several years of gradual decline, the shock result of the November 2022 election reduced it to only 30 seats in the 222-member parliament.
Like in any political party, victories have many fathers and unite the membership whereas losses trigger internal and public debates, rivalries flare up and the hunt for culprits is difficult to control. This was the central problem of party president Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and secretary-general Ahmad Maslan, the second in command. The calls for their resignation were loud enough, especially from the former MPs who lost their mandate, but as well from the members who blame the defeat as a deserved punishment for the years of money politics and corruption. With former UMNO leader and Prime Minister Najib Razak in prison and a conviction of Zahid looming, many were arguing for a self-cleansing exercise to improve the bad image of the party. Acquitted of 40 corruption charges in September last year, Zahid is still facing 47 charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering. In most democratic systems this would have finished his leadership ambitions, not so in UMNO and not in Malaysia. With admittedly skillful arguments and maneuvers, Zahid has managed to survive. He persuaded the recent general assembly of the party (January 11-14) to vote with a convincing majority of delegates not to contest the two top posts in the coming party polls, which must be held by May 19.
The main argument tried to persuade the delegates that shaking the boat even further would be a deadly danger for the very survival of the party, especially in view of the growth of long-time rival PAS, the Islamist party competing in UMNO’s Malay vote bank. Zahid’s and Maslan’s success shows as well how skillful the two can play the party piano, even without the deep pockets the party used to enjoy, mainly from contributions by Government-linked companies (GLCs).
The outmaneuvered faction in the assembly was not only against Zahid and Maslan and a more forceful renewal, but also for a rejuvenation of the leadership. Zahid, who just turned 70 last week, has been challenged by Khairy Jamaluddin, 47, a former leader of UMNO’s Youth Wing, former Minister of Youth and Sports as well as Health Minister. As son of a top diplomat and son in law of a former Prime Minister, he belongs to Malaysia’s “political nobility”, but above all he is a political animal of sorts. He lost his seat in Parliament in November and will have enough time to campaign for a continuation of his political career. One possible opportunity will come if Zahid should be convicted and imprisoned at the end of the law suit which will resume in April. For many it looks logical that his fight for an acquittal would be supported if he remains party president and Deputy Prime Minister in the present Government under PM Anwar Ibrahim.
For students of party politics, the ongoing saga is a rather interesting case study, though, or maybe even more so, because it is not following the textbooks on liberal democracy. But which party does?