KUALA LUMPUR: The tussle for leadership in Malaysia’s government saw a key development on Thursday with United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) severing ties with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) going into the next general election.
UMNO, in a Feb 26 decision, indicated that it would not cooperate with Bersatu in the next general election. The two are currently in the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.
In response, Bersatu released a statement saying that moving forward, it will focus on improving cooperation with its partners in the PN coalition, including Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and other regional and smaller parties.
Political analysts CNA spoke to said the writing had been on the wall for the past few months for UMNO and Bersatu to part ways.
Mr Muhyiddin Yassin's PN government was formed following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration in February last year. As party president, he had led Bersatu out of PH and joined forces with UMNO and PAS in a power tussle in Putrajaya.
However, ties between UMNO and Bersatu have frayed in recent months, with 189 out of UMNO’s 191 divisions nationwide rejecting working with Bersatu in January.
Mr Muhyiddin has reiterated that he will dissolve parliament once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, hence the talk of an imminent general election in Malaysia.
Analysts said this split between UMNO and Bersatu could trigger more shifting alliances, which could lead to unlikely partnerships ahead of the next general election.
READ: Motion tabled for UMNO to cut ties with Bersatu in the next general election, says party supreme council
ALLIANCE DOOMED FROM THE START
Analysts explained that there were clear signs signalling cracks early on in the relationship between UMNO and Bersatu.
Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, recalled how in March 2020, following the collapse of the PH government, UMNO had formed the PN government alongside Bersatu and PAS, thinking that it would be allowed to play an influential role in Mr Muhyiddin’s administration.
“UMNO was the party with the largest number of MPs in the coalition, more than Bersatu,” he said.
“In the end they were outmaneuvered, with many key ministerial positions given to Bersatu MPs. UMNO was found wanting,” he added.
He cited how Mr Muhyiddin named four senior ministers in his Cabinet, which included two from Bersatu and only one from UMNO.
Political analyst from Sunway University, Dr Wong Chin Huat, highlighted that the partnership between Bersatu and UMNO had always been a “zero-sum game” because they are both Malay-based parties, targeting support from the same voters.
“UMNO and its most threatening splinter Bersatu cannot agree on seat allocation and prime minister candidate (for the next GE) because the two parties are after the same electoral base, nationalist Malays,” said Dr Wong.
He also echoed Prof Chin’s sentiments, explaining how UMNO sees itself as the superior party with more seats and stronger grassroots in the rural Malay heartlands.
“Bersatu has not hidden its ambition to break up and annex UMNO. On the other hand, UMNO, with more seats and stronger machinery on the ground, sees no reason to concede the prime ministership to Bersatu,” he added.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, added that the split was always on the cards as both UMNO and Bersatu were vying for the driver’s seat in the ruling coalition.
“It takes two to tango, even in a political breakup,” said Dr Oh.
“The mutual distrust and irksomeness simmered over time until the recent breaking point,” he added.
SPLIT WOULD HURT BERSATU
Dr Oh said Bersatu could have a difficult time winning seats in the next election, as it has lost support from some voters who supported it when it was part of the PH coalition in the last general election in 2018.
Furthermore, he added that Bersatu, which was founded in 2016, has yet to match UMNO in capturing support from the conservative Malay voters.
"However, Bersatu could still rely on its ally PAS, which has strong roots in Kelantan and Terengganu, but the price of PAS’s assistance could mean a continued rollout of the Islamist party’s theocratic agenda in a Bersatu-PAS ruling coalition," he said.
As for other parties in the PN coalition, which consists of former Barisan Nasional component Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku Rakyat Sabah (STAR) and Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), the latter two which main base of support is in the northern Borneo state, Dr Oh said these might each retain their niche seats.
Gerakan has no parliamentary seat at present.
“But as each seat counts in forming a ruling coalition, they would still play an indispensable, albeit minor role,” he explained.
Bersatu would be “annihilated” if UMNO and PAS head into the polls as partners, said Dr Wong.
He said PAS could back UMNO in the polls, as the two parties have an ongoing Muafakat Nasional pact, which has a goal to unite Malay-Muslim political power.
UMNO HOLDS THE CARDS
Dr Oh outlined that the split between Bersatu and UMNO could favour UMNO moving forward, as it has a large number of seats and could dictate terms with whichever parties it chooses to form a coalition with.
“If UMNO wins substantially more seats than it has now, as seems likely, it could pick and choose its partners, including working again with Bersatu or with PH, to build a new ruling coalition where it would take firm and leading charge,” he added.
Dr Wong predicted that the seats in Peninsular Malaysia will be dominated by three groups: PH, UMNO and PAS in the polls.
“If Pakatan Harapan wins the largest share but less than 90 seats in Peninsular Malaysia, then it would most likely be an PH-UMNO government with their East Malaysian allies. If UMNO wins the largest share, then UMNO may have the choice of UMNO-PH or UMNO-PAS, also with their respective East Malaysian allies,” he added.
However, Prof Chin maintained that there are factions within UMNO that are still willing to work alongside PN.
He added that while the largest bloc, led by former prime minister Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is keen for UMNO to leave PN, other UMNO leaders who support Mr Muhyiddin could pull the party in another direction.
An example could be Mr Annuar Musa, who was sacked as Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s secretary-general in January.
Mr Annuar was seen as a proponent of UMNO’s continued alliance with Bersatu and PAS, and was reportedly sacked as he has not been toeing UMNO’s party lines and was seen to be siding with the ruling PN coalition.
Prof Chin said the decision for UMNO to leave PN could lead to some leaders leaving the party, weakening UMNO.
UMNO-PH PARTNERSHIP FOR GE15?
Although there is a possibility for UMNO now to partner PH in the next election and form a huge alliance with a good chance of winning, Prof Chin maintained that this would be unlikely due to inherent differences.
He noted that there are differences in political stance and racial ideology between UMNO and the likes of Mr Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Democratic Action Party (DAP) and hence an alliance coalition between UMNO and PH would be "not possible".
However, he stated that UMNO and PH could work together on one issue - to demand that parliament is dissolved and pressure Mr Muhyiddin to call for a general election.
READ: Perikatan Nasional agrees on UMNO representative as new Perak chief minister, replacing ousted Bersatu leader
“But to work together in a coalition? I don’t think so. The divide between UMNO and PKR is too deep, and of course UMNO absolutely hates the DAP. So that’s not possible,” said Prof Chin.
On the other hand, he added that a key issue that could unite the three Malay-based parties, Bersatu, UMNO and PAS, was to ensure that PH and some of its non-Malay based parties like DAP do not form the government.
“If the three Malay parties don’t stick together, and they split the Malay vote ... the ultimate fear for them will be that the non-Malay parties will make a comeback and win the election,” he added.
For Dr Oh, since the chances of the incumbent PN government being toppled in a reverse “Sheraton Move” seemed less and less likely, all parties would have to focus on their prospects in the next election, even for the opposition PH coalition.
“There is no point appearing overly friendly with UMNO at this moment. PH should focus on consolidating its support base, which has been subtly disintegrating as a sense of futility and haplessness sets in, in time to tackle the next general election,” Dr Oh said.
If the PH coalition could win the same number of seats it currently holds, or more, it could then pick and choose its partners. All sorts of combinations and their permutations would then open up, he added.
“The gist is, win as many seats as possible. Then talk cooperation,” Dr Oh said.