Three things about Umno’s 2018 election and why it matters

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was elected as the new Umno president in the highly-anticipated internal polls. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was elected as the new Umno president in the highly-anticipated internal polls. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, July 1 — Possibly the biggest event this year for Umno ended yesterday with Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi voted in as the new president to lead the 72-year-old Malay party for the next three years.

Here, Malay Mail gives you a quick overview of three things that political analysts observed from the Umno contest for the number one spot:

1. Status quo prevails (and why)

Before yesterday’s Umno elections for the top positions, Zahid had already steadily risen from party vice-president to being tasked with the duties of the deputy president after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked. Zahid later became acting deputy president.

Zahid, 65, was boosted in May to the role of acting Umno president when his predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak relinquished his role, following the party’s and Barisan Nasional’s (BN) shock defeat in the 14th general elections.

For Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, Zahid’s win yesterday merely reflected Umno members’ continued practice of following the “tradition” of having the deputy replacing the president, even when the winning candidate had allegedly nothing much to offer.

“It signifies retaining the status quo. Umno is afraid to make a decision electing two [other] candidates who can make a more significant impact to revive Umno,” he told Malay Mail.

Oh Ei Sun, Pacific Research Centre’s principal adviser, told Malay Mail that the results do not show Umno as having a desire for reforms, noting: “Umno still doesn’t want to reform itself despite electoral loss.”

Independent pollster Merdeka Center’s programme director Ibrahim Suffian noted that many of the party delegates who voted yesterday were actually Najib’s supporters and that Zahid had won because he did not alienate them.

“Greatest factor? I think Zahid won because he refrained from attacking Najib and thus gained the support of the former leader’s people who [are] still a sizable force in the party,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

Some analysts felt that Khairy Jamaluddin’s journey in Umno has yet to come to an end. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Some analysts felt that Khairy Jamaluddin’s journey in Umno has yet to come to an end. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

2. KJ and Ku Li

While initial results showed Zahid and Khairy Jamaluddin (KJ) neck and neck and even taking turns to lead the vote tally, the latest available numbers showed the 42-year-old former Umno youth chief mounting a respectable challenge, but still failing to win based on his reform agenda.

Oh said Khairy “would have to be looking for new platform to expand his political ambition”, adding that this could include the option of forming his own party.

But other analysts felt that Khairy’s journey in Umno has yet to come to an end, with his progressive image and ideas still offering appeal that Zahid and the party could tap into.

“I think he still has a future in Umno. I would think that he will be appointed to be part of Supreme Council,” Azizuddin said, noting that some party leaders can be appointed to its supreme council.

Research firm Ilham Centre’s executive director Hisommudin Bakar said Khairy who is otherwise known as KJ is still seen by party delegates as having strength, adding: “Zahid Hamidi should not oust him but should put him in a strategic position for the continuity of Umno’s struggle.”

Kelantan-born Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a true party veteran aged 81 and popularly known as Ku Li, reportedly won uncontested the Gua Musang Umno division chief position which he has held for 56 years since 1962.

When asked about Ku Li obtaining the lowest figure in the race to be Umno president, Oh said the Umno leader has not been active in politics for a long time and that his retirement from politics was “long overdue”.

Hisommudin said that it “seems like Ku LI has to retire from politics” and that “the era of his struggle is clearly over”, adding that it appears as if the “curse of defeat” has become synonymous with the latter’s political career in Umno.

Taking the results of the trio together, Hisommudin said it showed that grassroots support was split between those who wanted the status quo preserved and those who desired a complete change, adding that the delegates’ “dilemma” of choosing between KJ and Ku Li contributed to Zahid’s win.

“Although KJ started as the underdog, but his presentation benefited the media and his progressive statement captured the heart of delegates. It’s just that the reform vote did not work because it was split in half and the conservative vote was intact with Zahid Hamidi,” he said.

Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah garnered the support of 28 divisions in the internal party elections. — Picture by FIrdaus Latif
Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah garnered the support of 28 divisions in the internal party elections. — Picture by FIrdaus Latif

3. Umno’s future

Okay, why does the internal election of a political party merit national attention?

Well, for one thing, Umno is still the biggest party in Parliament, albeit at a reduced 54-seat haul compared to its 2013 haul of 88 seats. It currently holds almost a quarter of the 222 parliamentary seats.

It will also be one of the main opposition parties to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.

In fact, Oh said Umno’s effectiveness as an opposition party is “mainly as an electoral threat to PH as it still commands 40 per cent Malay votes!”

Ibrahim said the Umno presidential race meant that there will be continuity of leadership for the next three years. The party was expected to be more focused on Malay voters and to defend that segment from encroachment by PH.

“It also opens up possibilities for Umno and PAS to explore cooperation in the future.

“This also means that Umno will not likely mimic PH’s more liberal stance on when it comes to pursuing multicultural politics, thus drawing the line for contestation along communal lines.

“Publicly however, Umno will have a tough challenge winning back the voters that turned against it. It depends on whether Zahid, now that he’s won, will be able to distance himself from Najib and chart his own course from this point onward,” Ibrahim told Malay Mail.

Hours before the Umno polls results were known, Zahid had in a speech yesterday highlighted Umno’s role as allegedly the only party defending the interests of the ethnic Malay community and the Malay rulers, quizzing why Universiti Teknologi MARA’s (UiTM) matriculation programme should be opened up to non-Malays and non-Bumiputra.

In the same speech which could set the tone for Umno in the near future as it seeks to assert its relevance to voters and find fresh footing, Zahid also said the party was not demanding more than what was already written in the Federal Constitution, such as the provision for the Malay language as the national language.

But beyond promising in his 15-point manifesto to protect Malay interests and restricting Umno membership to Malays and Bumiputera only, Zahid also pledged reforms such as limiting the presidency post to two consecutive terms, setting up a special task force against money politics, and ending the party’s “warlord” culture.