The End looks Nigh for Malaysia’s UMNO


Partyforumseasia:  Political parties come and go, have ups and downs, win and lose elections. In many European countries, party systems which have been stable for many decades disintegrate, previously unthinkable coalitions demand all sorts of difficult compromises. In Germany, the Social Democrats with a history going back to 1863 and many years of dominating in government, are agonizing in federal state elections under 10% and with a helpless leadership. In Malaysia, now, it seems to be the turn of UMNO, the dominant party for over sixty years. On 9 May this year, it lost more than an election. It obviously lost its soul and raison d’etre, its self-confidence and successively all its allies. From a coalition of 13 parties which helped to cement the grip on power for so long, only the former ethnic minority vote banks, Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) with only two seats left in the federal parliament, and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) with one, remained after the election. It is like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship, a question of survival for all of them. After a recent desperate attempt by UMNO to save the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition through getting the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) on board, the MCA is planning to quit as well.

UMNO’s former strongman and now its president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who planned to bring PAS into a new credible opposition coalition, is indicted with 45 charges of graft and corruption, following former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his spendthrift wife Rosmah Mansor. They all have not only lost the election and the trust of the voters but are all moving closer to prison. The intricate, complex and corrupt financial network which provided unlimited campaign funding for their  coalition, needs time to be sorted out by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
On 20 October, Umno veteran Razaleigh Hamzah (in the picture on top) launched a book on “The End of UMNO”, edited by Prof. Bridget Welsh, a prominent and outspoken scholar specializing on Southeast Asian politics. But in an interview she cautioned that so far only the Najib-style corrupt UMNO is dead and that the party could survive with new leaders and younger members. These, though, are turning away according to the media.

Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the new main ruling party, has its own teething problems. Trying to be the democratic model party in contrast to UMNO’s top down style, PKR is now running its internal leadership election. Its 800,000 members can vote over more than two months, and for the first time in an electronic voting system which does not function without glitches all the time. The stakes are high because party president Anwar Ibrahim is supposed to be Prime Minister within the next two years. Once he well be in office, many government positions will be available for the leaders elected now. So, claims of irregularities, even bribing, have been reported, but also violent clashes between rival supporter groups. Malaysia’s changing party landscape will need some time to cool down and normalize.

Malaysia’s Competing Coalitions: War of Attrition Going “MAD”?


Partyforumseasia: Sometimes the epic struggle between the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalitions reminds of the cold war nuclear strategy called “mutually assured destruction” or “MAD” in short. But in reality it isn’t about deterrence, it is about the destruction of one or the other. The Non-Malay coalition partner of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association ( MCA ) lost more than half of its mandates in 2013 with 7 seats in Parliament left. The other predominantly Chinese Barisan-party, Gerakan, is nearly annihilated since 2008, and both were losing despite generous financial support from UMNO.
Now the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), equally pampered by UMNO, and down to four seats, risks its own future by major infighting. What happens within the MIC? Strategic director S Vell Paari and former Youth chief T Mohan, rivals of  party leader G Palanivel triggered an order by the Registrar of Societies to hold fresh elections for three vice-presidents and 23 members of the central MIC fracas 2working committee after the convention in November 2013 was found to have breached the Societies Act 1966. Two weeks ago about 500 disgruntled members demanded Palanivels resignation and came into a scuffle with his loyalists, watched by 100 policemen. Leadership competition is normal in any party but in a declining party it easily gets out of control.
Altogether, the apparent weakness of UMNO’s traditional vote “absorbers” among the ethic minorities plus inroads of the opposition in Sabah and Sarawak must ring the alarm bells quite clearly.
Strategy-wise:
UMNO has reason enough to fear a further erosion of its “majority-formula” which guaranteed its domination for decades by getting enough support from the Non-Malay minority groups in the Barisan Nasional or National Front coalition. Internal warnings were saying that a further two per cent drop in the next election would cost them the government.
To compensate this weakness on their own side, the answer is of course a strategy to create problems for the Pakatan Rakyat coalition and use their apparent cleavages and lack of stable cohesion. The most visible cleavage at the moment is the hudud (Islamic criminal law and punishments)-debate between coalition partners PAS and DAP. If the PAS-dominated Kelantan State Legislative Assembly paves the way for hudud after trying to do so for more than two decades, a split of Pakatan may be imminent. The secular DAP can hardly cooperate in that matter with the Islam-driven PAS. And for political gain and its own survival UMNO can hardly afford to prevent Kelantan from introducing hudud. In this type of impasse UMNO will most probably opt for survival and not for the best interest and unity of the nation it leads. The decision of a a special state assembly sitting on December 29th to pass the amendments has been postponed because of the heavy flooding, but the climax of the drama can be expected any time soon.

Coalition Strategies in Malaysia: Barisan Component Parties No Longer Needed?


Partyforumseasia: The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) 150px-Flag_of_the_Malaysian_Chinese_Association.svghas been thriving for decades as appendix of UMNO, helping to secure its absolute majority by bringing in substantial numbers of Chinese votes as a regular dowry and a counterbalance to the Chinese opposition DAP. Formation and success of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition and the multi-racial approach of its Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) as well as the growing attractiveness of the DAP for Chinese voters have undermined MCA’s traditional role. Factional infighting has crippled the party for some time already and the extremely narrow results in the recent internal elections may herald the further decline of what was once Malaysia’s second biggest political party. In 2008 it still won 15 parliamentary and 31 state seats, in May 2013 only 7 and 11 seats respectively. But, as it was pampered by big brother UMNO with ministerial portfolios and business opportunities during its heydays, MCA is still very rich. According to a Straits Times article on 22 December the party assets are estimated at nearly 3 billion RM, which comes to over 900 million US$. These assets, land, buildings, companies (Huaren Holdings) and a 42% stake in the Star daily may keep the leadership posts embattled. 2,325 delegates elected president and deputy president, four vice-presidents and 25 central committee members, and Mr. Liow Tiong Lai has won the presidency by just 26 votes.
MCA results

Strategic Lessons: Piggy rides are dangerous coalition strategies. Junior partners have to maintain their usefulness for big brother or risk decline. Assets may keep them alive for some time but not for long.

Difficult to compare but interesting:
The German Free Democratic Party (FDP), a long term successful piggy rider in various coalitions, has lost all seats in the federal parliament in September this year. Its survival may be more difficult than for MCA because it has no assets…