KUALA LUMPUR: The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which ruled Malaysia for 61 years until May, is in deep turmoil as senior figures abandon the party.
On Dec 12, more than a dozen Sabah UMNO lawmakers and state assemblymen quit and pledged their support to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Two days later, six UMNO lawmakers in the peninsula followed suit.
To make matters worse, 31 UMNO assemblymen in Langkawi called it quits on Thursday (Dec 20).
Party sources told Channel NewsAsia that some defectors as well as others who are preparing to leave are driven by the desire to preserve political capital, as well as to return to the ranks of the ruling elite.
A frustrated UMNO youth leader, among others, has called on members to stay the course and contribute towards being a good opposition.
“I believe the answer is to fix our party… to change new leaders and to gain the trust of the people,” Mr Zulkifli Rajalie, told Channel NewsAsia.
“I believe Umno has a role to play. We should stay and contribute by being a good opposition to the (PH) government,” the UMNO youth Ampang branch leader added.
It remains to be seen whether UMNO would find the strength in depth to reinvent itself and avoid the path of political irrelevance.
POST POWER SYNDROME
Analysts see the exodus as a symptom of UMNO’s post power syndrome, with members unaccustomed to operating from the fringes without all the privileges that come with being the ruling elite.
“Umno elites are not used to being out of power. The defections are a symptom of that,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
“UMNO, the mainstay of the Barisan Nasional government exercised such overwhelming power for 61 years. Its present situation where it has little authority, does not occupy positions of importance in society and does not enjoy the perks and privileges of high office, is a huge psychological setback to the party,” said Mr Chandra.
“This is why some of them are keen on getting back to power and are allegedly engaged in maneuvers in that direction.”
“It is also said that they and others are also hoping that some deal can be made with individuals in the Pakatan Harapan government that may help to keep UMNO bigwigs out of jail or at least lessen their travails,” he added.
Associate Professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi, who specialises in Malay socio-cultural studies at University Malaya, agrees.
“They (UMNO members) feel threatened as they worry they would be investigated or pressured by the PH government if they remain with UMNO,” said Assoc Prof Awang.
“The luxurious life when UMNO was the ruler no longer exists… and their sources of money are becoming increasingly limited,” he noted.
UMNO YOUTHS BLAME POOR LEADERSHIP
UMNO youths have blamed the departures on the poor leadership of the party president and former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces more than 40 corruption and money laundering charges in court.
Leading the call for Zahid to resign is former party youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin who tweeted “Step aside Sir… it’s time”.
After days of defying calls by members to resign, Zahid handed over his duties to UMNO’s deputy president Mohamad Hasan on Tuesday night, while stressing that he still leads the party.
Mr Mohamad, known by his moniker Mat Hasan, was appointed the acting president on Thursday.
While Zahid’s decision was welcomed by some members, they do not think this will stem the exodus.
”Probably not...because some of the MPs are crossing over (to PH) for personal gains,” said Mr Zulkifli, the UMNO youth branch chief.
Mr Zulkifli has been calling for Zahid’s resignation. “For now I am happy. If Zahid wants the (president) post again, we won’t sit quiet,” he stated.
CAN THE DEPUTY PRESIDENT STEADY THE SHIP?
Assoc Prof Awang says UMNO could only be saved by a “dynamic leadership”.
“Handing over duties to Mat Hassan will not solve the real problem. This is because there are MPs, state assemblymen who have no self-control, are easily disappointed and have no direction even as they accuse the UMNO president of being directionless,” he said.
Mr Zulkifli, however, is more sanguine.
“I think Mat Hassan will give us better and clear(er) direction for UMNO. He will give us stability and calmness,” he said.
Mr Mat Hasan is the former chief minister of Negeri Sembilan. He has a good track record in the corporate world, previously serving as managing director of Cycle & Carriage Bintang Berhad as well as holding senior management positions in major local banks.
“Mat Hasan’s track record in Negeri Sembilan is good… people of all races like him,” said Mr Zulkifli.
“I believe in the next few months, people in UMNO will see that Mat Hasan is a much better leader than Zahid.”
GRANDSON OF UMNO’S FOUNDER WANTS TO SAVE PARTY
Caught in the maelstrom is Mr Hishammuddin Hussein, the grandson of UMNO’s founder Onn Jaafar who established the party in 1946.
Some Umno leaders have accused him of leading a faction to join Dr Mahathir’s party to shore up support for the prime minister, a charge which Mr Hishammuddin has denied.
Dr Mahathir’s media adviser Kadir Jasin told Channel NewsAsia that the former defence minister has indeed met with the prime minister. But he said it was to talk about “saving” UMNO.
“He (Hishammuddin) met Mahathir and had a long discussion. He laid down the condition that whatever happened, UMNO should not die,” Mr Kadir, who is also a Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) supreme council member, told Channel NewsAsia.
“He insisted on keeping UMNO for the sake of his family legacy,” Mr Kadir added.
However, Mr Hishammuddin is said to lack grassroots support and may not be able to do much.
“Hishammuddin is seen as a weak leader within UMNO with little grassroots support. It is difficult to place hope in him to save UMNO,” said Assoc Prof Awang.
CAN UMNO BE SAVED?
“So far thousands have joined Bersatu and I believe a huge chunk from UMNO would follow suit because Bersatu (PPBM) is the only exclusively Bumiputera/Malay political vehicle in the PH coalition,” said Mr Firdaus Abdullah, a former political editor of New Straits Times.
“UMNO will survive but it may become like Gerakan or even worse. A lot depends on the performance of Bersatu,” he added.
Gerakan, the former ruling party of Penang state, failed to win a single seat in the last general elections.
Zahid has warned PPBM that if it accepts UMNO defectors, they would take over the party.
On Wednesday, Dr Mahathir dismissed Zahid’s warning, saying: “No way. They (UMNO members) cannot hold any office until the next election”.
While the potential entry of Umno members may strengthen Dr Mahathir’s party in the short-term, it is also stoking discontent with segments of the public and Members of Parliament (MPs) from PH, including those from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP).
PPBM has only 16 seats in the federal parliament, compared to 50 for the PKR and 42 for the DAP. UMNO now has 37 seats in parliament.
‘To accept them (UMNO) into Pakatan Harapan now would be a betrayal of the rakyat (people) who wanted a real change, not merely a cosmetic one where many old faces are a part of the new government,” wrote DAP MP Ramkarpal Singh in an open letter to Malaysiakini.
“The more Harapan entertains these crossovers, the more disillusioned the rakyat will become with Harapan,” he cautioned.