KUALA LUMPUR: As the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) holds its general assembly this weekend, political watchers are looking out for indications of the dynamics within the party, and how it would position itself ahead of the next general election.
The general assembly, which has been postponed several times from last year due to COVID-19 case numbers, is normally one of the most scrutinised political events in Malaysia, given UMNO's anchor role in earlier Barisan Nasional (BN) governments, and its heavyweight role in the current ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
2021 also marks UMNO's 75th year of existence. This year's gathering will be held as a combination of face-to-face and virtual events. Media will be kept from entering the hall to cover speeches and debates, due to health protocol considerations.
This general assembly takes on particular significance at a time when UMNO has severed ties with Mr Muhyiddin Yassin's Parti Pribumi Beratu Malaysia (Bersatu) going into the next general election, which will be held after the country has overcome COVID-19.
Additionally, some UMNO MPs have earlier expressed support for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, or withdrawn support for PN.
All eyes are now on UMNO's unity, given the differing signals by the state chapters, said those interviewed by CNA. Other issues to watch for include how seat allocation will colour UMNO's political considerations and whether a grand bargain is on the cards with Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Although UMNO has indicated that it would only cooperate with Bersatu until parliament is dissolved and elections are called, there have been conflicting messages on whether both sides will work together during the campaigning.
READ: Bersatu to focus on ties among PN parties, says sec-gen after UMNO letter ceasing cooperation
Universiti Utara Malaysia political analyst Associate Professor Ahmad Martadha Mohamed noted that at the state level, the UMNO chapters have espoused differing approaches.
“There have been statements that UMNO will cooperate with Bersatu in some states like Sabah and Perlis (although Perlis has since recanted its stance). In others like Perak and Johor, the UMNO leaders there have clearly stated they will not work with Bersatu,” he pointed out.
Political scientist Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, currently a scholar-in-residence at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, said UMNO should be understood as a pragmatic party.
“I would not put too much stock in UMNO’s confirmation not to cooperate with Bersatu in the next general election. ‘Unforeseen circumstances’ might occur along the way, and change the whole scenario,” Prof Ahmad Fauzi said.
It was becoming clearer, the academic said, that there are signs of factionalism within UMNO. He said that one faction within the party is in favour of supporting the PN government, even though this would mean that UMNO would be playing second fiddle to Mr Muhyddin's Bersatu.
“Elites in this group are being rewarded with appointments, both political and in government-linked companies as they thrive on pro-Malay sentiments, and the ‘No Anwar, No Democratic Action Party (DAP)’ rally cry," he said, adding that this is in line with UMNO's original slogan of "Hidup Melayu" (Long Live Malays).
READ: Annuar Musa sacked as Barisan Nasional secretary-general: Reports
Another faction, he noted, was being led by UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“Ahmad Zahid seems to be the pivotal person in secret negotiations with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to strike a deal with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), not necessarily Pakatan Harapan, for GE15,” Prof Ahmad Fauzi said, noting the two former deputy prime ministers’ connections go way back to 1998 when Mr Anwar was ousted by then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
“Zahid was then a UMNO youth chief loyal to Anwar, a protege in fact,” Prof Ahmad Fauzi recalled.
READ: UMNO, Barisan Nasional to contest all parliamentary and state seats won in GE14, says Ahmad Zahid
One stumbling block preventing UMNO from striking a national agreement with Bersatu is the seat allocation issue, said Ms Aira Nur Ariana Azhari, the Democracy and Governance Unit Manager at think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
UMNO’s election director Tajuddin Abdul Rahman has already indicated that UMNO wants to contest in all seats it won in the last general election, including those they’ve since lost to defections, she said, pointing to a recent statement by the Pasir Salak MP.
“There are only so many Malay majority seats up for grabs, and both UMNO and Bersatu rely on these seats for votes,” Ms Aira said. Both parties' grassroots leaders whose opinions matter in seat negotiations will also be in the equation, making it a difficult balancing act, she added.
The situation is also complicated by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia's (PAS) interests.
While the Islamist party is primarily limited to its power bases in the east coast states of Kelantan, Terengganu and the northern state of Kedah, it is a member in both the formally-registered PN coalition, and the Muafakat Nasional (MN) partnership with UMNO.
Party relations between UMNO and PAS have also taken a hit, as the latter appears to be moving closer to Bersatu, said Prof Ahmad Fauzi.
“PAS appears to have the upper hand in the ‘Malay belt’ areas of the country, but whether UMNO benefits from this partnership (with PAS) is still questionable even after one and a half years in MN," he said.
“PAS is not open to sharing the spoils of power with UMNO in the states it controls, despite the ideological convergence since both parties’ joint efforts to realise RUU355 (the hudud bill) in 2014,” he added.
ALL EYES ON GRASSROOTS' VIEWS
Speculation that an agreement may be on the cards between UMNO and Mr Anwar has surfaced since September last year.
For Ms Aira, such a bargain would need to factor in the views of the grassroots. "PKR is still part of the larger PH coalition. The decision on whether or not to work with UMNO should be made together with PKR's coalition partners, and after considering party grassroots opinion," she said.
Prof Ahmad Fauzi said if UMNO could work out a deal with Mr Anwar and PKR, the party could also hope to strike a deal with elements in DAP so that it can also represent the non-Malays.
"UMNO may argue that DAP, being officially non-racial-centric in contrast with the racially organised MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), projects a better Malaysian face."
READ: Commentary - In making moves to align with UMNO, has Anwar's PKR lost its moral compass?
"There has, moreover, been increasing support for DAP at grassroots level even among educated young Malays frustrated at the hierarchical bottlenecks they encounter in Malay-dominated parties." Prof Ahmad Fauzi noted.
However, a larger problem he said, would be convincing the grassroots that this was not a betrayal of DAP's long-held ideals, especially in defending the rights of the non-Malays.
Assoc Prof Ahmad Martadha said that thus far, public statements had only been coming from a few leaders in UMNO. But the grassroots delegates' discussions during the general assembly would give a clearer picture on the party's future steps.
"It's difficult to state very clearly the official position from UMNO. We've heard from certain leaders, but without any general assembly, any actual position or discussion about UMNO's mandate, such as whether to continue working with Bersatu, we cannot make out the party's direction," he said.