June 19, 2018
Tainted Love in UMNO’s Polls
by Dr. Bridget Welsh
GE-14 sent a clear call for the need for UMNO to change. This month, UMNO delegates are facing another reckoning. Ultimately, the party polls will decide whether the party moves out of Najib’s shadow and works toward becoming the much-needed constructive opposition Malaysia needs, to regain some of its dignity, or whether misplaced loyalties and deep-seated “old” practices will tattoo the taint of past government into the party’s future.–Bridget Welsh
UMNO General Assembly 2018–No Longer a Laughing Matter
COMMENT | UMNO heads to its party elections at the end of the month. Nominations are in and a real contest is taking shape. This is a contest not just about the future of UMNO but for the future of Malaysia. Despite being decimated in the May 9 elections, UMNO continues to hold onto the support of at least a third of the Malay electorate and its actions in opposition will affect the country’s political direction.
While the steps to rebuilding UMNO’s credibility will require significant internal party reform and the adoption of new forms of political legitimacy and public engagement that are likely to take years to take root, the first test for UMNO will be its party polls.
At the core of this test is whether party stalwarts, tainted by close associations to the disgraceful leadership of Najib Razak, will put the love of the party above self-interest and, finally, long overdue, put the interests of the country before its discredited leaders.
‘Old’ versus ‘new’ politics
Najib Loyalist Faction led by Zahid Hamidi
Few have confidence in UMNO to do the right thing. This is understandable as they watched the party pilfer the national coffers and pander to the turpitude of the Najib government. This said, the competitive contest for UMNO’s leadership shows that there is indeed some recognition of the party’s new reality in opposition, and some appreciation of the factors that have gotten UMNO into the crisis it now faces. Make no bones about it, this is a crisis for the very survival of the party itself.
There are, however, differences on what those factors are and, importantly, interests of those who actively engage in denial to maintain their power and influence in the party. Broadly, the contest is a battle between “old” and “new” politics, with the former engaged mostly in denial and the latter willing to embrace change, albeit at this juncture, of a conservative nature.
While there are many contenders, there are three main teams – the close Najib allies, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Annuar Musa and Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor; those around veteran leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah; and those around the last-minute entrant for the presidency, Khairy Jamaluddin.
In coming days, the composition of the different teams will likely be finalised as sides are chosen. Zahid has the heaviest burden to bear as Najib’s right-hand man and strongest stalwart and is using the issue of loyalty as part of his appeal to the voting leaders.
Razaleigh distinguishes himself as one of the few MPs who criticised the 1MDB scandal early on and opposed the controversial Goods and Service Tax (GST). He also stands as a contemporary to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in an era where age and experience are more of an asset than in the past.
Khairy was among the first to call for the acceptance of the GE14 results and publicly urge for party reforms after the UMNO’s defeat. He is capitalising on his youthfulness. His entrance into the presidential race, after opting initially for a vice-presidency, has however potentially made him a spoiler, with calls of ‘treachery’ circulating as a result of his earlier pledge to support Razaleigh’s candidacy.
There are four important issues that differentiate the political camps: 1) role of racial/religious chauvinism, 2) corruption and use of money politics, 3) the calibre of intellect, and 4) the defence of Najib’s tenure.
Those advocating for “old” UMNO politics push for exclusionary politics, justify graft and the use of these funds for personal power, are largely less adept in understanding policy issues and continue to stand by ‘their’ man, a.k.a Najib.
Those advocating for “new” politics have a more open outlook towards non-Malays and, importantly, see Malays as much more than their race and religion, recognise the excesses of the previous regime and the corrosive influence money has played on the party itself, are more capable of engaging on policy matters, and would like greater distance between Najib and the party’s future.
Zahid’s team personifies the “old” UMNO, with Razaleigh and Khairy both embodying more “new” UMNO although in different ways and, as will be developed below, appeal to different constituencies. Add to this mix, there are three important decisions the party will need to face.
The first is whether to ally with PAS, as the Islamist party would like to continue to control the direction of UMNO toward a more religiously conservative direction. This was what Najib put in motion and arguably resulted in UMNO’s loss of the East Coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan.
The second is what will happen when its former, current (and potential) future leaders will face criminal charges for scandals, from 1MDB to MARA. Those holding positions in the Najib government face a greater likelihood of investigation and possible charges and should shoulder more responsibility for allowing the malfeasance.
The third is the potential threat of illegality of the organisation due to the jeopardy that Najib placed on the party by delaying GE-14 to after April and failing to hold the party elections in a timely fashion before the 18-month period ran out. Know that the party polls are only one of many critical tests the party will face in coming months.
Whether “old” or “new” forces win, it will shape the outcomes of alliances, party identity and trials, with those adopting “old” politics more likely to take a more defensive and racialised posture toward its role in opposition politics. With the choices on different sides, delegates will have to decide how tainted they want the future leadership to be.
Institutions versus identity
The 2018 party contests will be competitive, arguably among the most competitive since 1987 as effectively all the main positions are being contested. This contest has the potential to split UMNO, especially with Khairy’s late entrance into the race. Going into the contest, the incumbents and “old” politics hold the advantage in part due to division among those advocating a “new” UMNO, but the contests are too early to call as events are evolving.
There is a mix of factors shaping the outcome beyond the camp divisions that make this an interesting race to watch.
Money politics will no longer have the same influence as in the past, reducing the incumbent advantage. In fact, many on the ground understand that greed for money is the poison that has gotten the party to where it is, and in fact the same money already reportedly being circulated as “duit raya” is tainted by the misdeeds of the party’s top leadership. Razaleigh has already pledged not to use money, recognising its toxicity, while others, notably in the “old” team, has reportedly already started distributing funds.
Along with money, incumbents holding official positions are using their organisational advantage. From the use of the information chief position to control over the central office and paramilitary groups within the party, Zahid and team have the greater institutional upper hand. Khairy also will have this institutional advantage as the former Youth chief.
What makes this election different is that many of these organisations have been weakened during Najib’s tenure and are arguably weaker post GE-14. UMNO stalwarts no longer can rely on government agencies and departments to win office. This party election is likely to bring to the fore the erosion of support within the party machinery itself and expose how limited it is without the government behind it.
Quite a few leaders at the branch level are opting not to compete this time around, as there is more of an exodus from the party than before. Some of this is about the drying up of the money stream, but for others it is a sense that the party itself has lost its purpose and identity. It is important to acknowledge that many UMNO members, including many branches, voted for Pakatan Harapan in GE-14. If the old forces win, this exodus is likely to continue.
Another factor that has emerged are the calls for reforms within the party. These have been present, but ultimately the desire to stay in power (and reap the benefits of office) overpowered any calls for change. Changes that did happen regularly empowered those in office, as supposed ‘democratising’ drives were in fact used to strengthen the hold of the top leadership.
Now, many members are openly calling for reforms, a movement that underscores key differences as the party heads to elections. More reform-minded delegates are divided on who they would like to lead this effort.
Najib’s 1Malaysia Legacy–1MDB, Shattered UMNO and a Tainted Malaysia
Najib very much overshadows these polls. He is seen to be backing his loyalists. Persisting to seemingly attest to no wrongdoing and dismissing the potential of any imprisonment, Najib continues to be active in political life as a leader behind the scenes.
A scenario is supposedly that Najib will assure his loyalists win to defend him, and if need be, stand ready to have him pardoned if ever (and given where UMNO is now, it is a big “if” in the short and medium term) the party returns to power. Najib anchors the tie to the “old” politics. For his allies, defending Najib is defending themselves.
Ironically, however, Najib has put in place an electoral system that offers the potential for change. In the electoral system he introduced, around 146,000 delegates will be able to vote. These delegates are not just the branch and division chiefs, but Youth, Puteri and Women’s wing delegates, along with additional delegates from larger branches.
There are more voices that can determine the outcome, thereby making the competitive contests interesting. While the system works as an electoral college, with votes from branches and divisions tied to the winner, it is a mistake to assume that there is unanimity at the branch level and that races will be determined before the contest begins.
At the same time, it is more difficult to control these individuals than in the past without the hold on power. It is, after all, Najib who spearheaded the party’s defeat. Internal divisions about Najib’s leadership are brewing among the ranks of the delegates, with resentments being directed against many of the stalwarts who seemed to benefit from Najib’s favour.
Many of the traditional warlords are seen within this group and do not hold the same dominance in this era of opposition uncertainty compared to before. There are no real “state blocks” that can be delivered, although alliances from the key states with larger divisions will be impactful, although here too is potentially less cohesively than in earlier elections.
In contrast, there are two groups that were sidelined that will be particularly important. The first is the youth. This election has the potential to be the biggest generational shift. Khairy is capitalising on this sentiment and driving this movement.
The second is the women, both the Wanita and Puteri members, who collectively make up almost a third of the voting delegates. On the frontline during GE-14, UMNO women witnessed the erosion of support for the party and had to directly face the interference of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor in their organisations. In this election, a stronger slate is competing for leadership of these party organs and collectively, the female delegates will be decisive in the polls outcome.
As the polls approach, there are many who would like UMNO to wallow in their defeat. They would like the party to suffer for its misdeeds and mismanagement, and for its wounds to fester. The politics of division, confrontation and resentment run deep in Malaysian politics, with anger still simmering. Legitimate questions arise on who should be accountable for the party’s poor leadership and how far and in what ways its leaders should face responsibility for their actions.
GE-14 sent a clear call for the need for UMNO to change. This month, UMNO delegates are facing another reckoning. Ultimately, the party polls will decide whether the party moves out of Najib’s shadow and works toward becoming the much-needed constructive opposition Malaysia needs, to regain some of its dignity, or whether misplaced loyalties and deep-seated “old” practices will tattoo the taint of past government into the party’s future.
BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.