KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 28 — The 2018 Umno annual general assembly will set the stage for intense wrangling between reformists and conservative old guards in a defining battle that would decide if the party remains centrist or goes further right, political analysts said.
The three-day congress starting today will be the party’s first as Opposition after 61 years in power, which means president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the supreme council and over 5,000 delegates will be charting unfamiliar waters.
With the wound from its May 9 maiden electoral defeat still fresh, the Malay nationalists have been demoralised further by a sequence of resignations by senior party leaders at a time when it needed to close ranks.
Observers believe the assembly will give way to unprecedented freedom for delegates to ask hard-hitting questions, demand answers, and level strong criticism against the party leadership, which has enjoyed undivided loyalty in the past.
“Expect a lot of wrangling and mutual allegations, with factions blaming each other for the party’s loss,” University Malaya political analyst Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar told Malay Mail.
“At one end there will be those who will call for the party to return to its original struggle, but at the other there will be those who will continue to take the pro Malay-Islam line.
“It will be a moment for hard reflection and self-criticism,” he added.
Progressives to question Zahid over PAS ties
For the party’s progressives, the Malay nationalists are already seen as straying far from its moderate values by toying with the idea of an alliance with former Islamist archrival PAS.
The two parties enjoy a conservative powerbase and between them share 68 federal seats. Immediately after the May 9 elections, Zahid and other senior leaders openly said Umno would work together with PAS in an alliance meant to preserve Malay-Islam interests.
The newly forged ties were formalised at the Sri Kandis, Seri Setia and Balakong state by-elections through joint campaigns that ran with overtly communal undertones. Most of the attacks were directed against pro-minority policies and non-Malay leaders of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration.
Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre, said Umno progressives will likely take Zahid to task over the alliance during the AGM.
At the same time, moderates will also demand their president to spell out in clear terms the party direction, especially after Zahid gave mixed signals by declaring Umno’s openness to cooperating with any political parties other than PAS.
“I think the leaders are going to try and sell the old notion of party and Malay unity, but this will ring hollow,” Ibrahim told Malay Mail.
“Members expect direction over where they intend to take the party to, but am not sure if the leaders can deliver this.”
There will be push for unity, but unlikely to work
And while the Umno president may try to avoid further division by appealing to the middle way, there is doubt about what that middle path is, or if he has what it takes to prevent a conservative backlash by pushing for internal reform.
“Deep reforms would mean trying to go back to the party’s core values and try to be a centrist party again,” Ibrahim said.
“This is exceedingly difficult because there’s no guarantee it will be successful. An easier option would go to the right wing and strengthen cooperation with PAS, (but) taking this route would alienate and ultimately drive out whatever moderate elements in the party out to PH.”
Two Umno supreme council members, Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed and Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, announced their decision to quit just two weeks before the AGM in a move that analysts said underscored the growing internal frustration with Zahid’s leadership.
Mustapa, a former minister, said he resigned because the party was too slow to reform while Anifah said he felt powerless to fight for Sabahan rights under Umno, which had lost all of its Sarawak and Sabah-based Barisan Nasional allies just shortly after the May 9 elections.
Just days after, vocal Cheras Umno division chief Datuk Seri Datuk Seri Syed Ali Al-Habshee also announced his resignation, while veteran and former minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Ahmad Albar also quit the party to join rival Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, in response to the resignations, said the upcoming Umno general assembly must serve as a “turning point” or the party risks losing more leaders.
The Rembau MP, who challenged Zahid for the presidency but came in second at the party polls in July, is expected to lead the progressive voice at the AGM, analysts told Malay Mail.
Come Anwar Ibrahim?
Resources will also be a key topic for debate at the AGM. The party is reportedly cash-strapped after authorities seized cash and froze its assets as part of an ongoing investigation into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal linked to former president Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
With patronage running deep within party culture, Umno’s financial plight has forced Zahid to think of strategies to recoup or generate new sources of income.
This desperation is reflected in Zahid’s attempt to court and forge ties with PH component parties, including former deputy prime minister and former Umno number two, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which Zahid sees as a way for Umno to get back into power.
This proposal, although likely to be opposed by hardcore loyalists, will be among issues to be discussed both in the debates or outside the main Putra World Trade Centre halls where the AGM will take place, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia analyst Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said.
The idea that Anwar would be open to an alliance, he explained, is predicated on the supposed internal squabbling within PH between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar’s camps.
Umno leaders, like former Johor mentri besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin, were among those who had voiced the proposal.
“Mahathir is weakening because he is old and he can’t control PH leaders as much as he could,” he told Malay Mail.
“Umno leaders realised this. Umno leaders read the Mahathir situation well. So Khaled Nordin suggested Pakatan Malaysia with DSAI as the leader. I think bringing back DSAI shall be a topic,” he added, referring to Anwar’s acronym.