KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 19 — The simmering tensions between Umno and Bersatu may eventually lead to a clash in the 15th general elections (GE15) between two of the biggest Malay-based parties presently in terms of parliamentary seats held, with the more established Umno seen as having the higher odds of winning, analysts have said.

But will the results of an election tussle between Umno and Bersatu have much of an effect on Malaysia?

Malay Mail spoke to political observers about whether they felt the two parties were likely to clash head-on in the next general election, and which party would have the bigger advantage and what the results could mean for Malaysia.

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, senior associate with political and policy risk consultancy Vriens & Partners, noted that either party would end up being “subsumed” by the other eventually as there is “no room for dual roles”, with those from the party that lost expected to join or be absorbed by the winning party.

“Bersatu’s raison d’etre is to replace Umno as the prominent Malay party in peninsula Malaysia, and this purpose has not changed. Bersatu’s tactic of divide and conquer may work the longer polls are delayed, as it seeks to woo leaders and grassroots from Umno.

“But, ultimately, Umno will find a way to survive. It still commands much organic grassroots support and is a ‘trusted’ brand compared to Bersatu. In the context of survival, it will be a tall order for both parties to coexist in the long run — either one will end up swallowing the other whole, eventually,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

Shazwan believes that a contest between Umno and Bersatu in GE15 is a “possible scenario, given the way things are going”.

While the recent nationwide Emergency declaration has suspended all elections, Shazwan said the status quo of a potential clash between the two parties remains, noting: “Emergency will just delay the inevitable — Umno vs Bersatu down the line.”

In the event of a GE15 clash between the two parties, Shazwan said Umno will have advantage in terms of its ability to organise and mobilise on-the-ground grassroots support, while Bersatu may also have some advantage in terms of the ability to dole out election goodies.

“Umno has the overall advantage for now — grassroots strength, numbers, as well as the experience of navigating through times of crisis,” he said.

When asked if it would matter for Malaysia if a clash between the two parties results in only Umno remaining and Bersatu no longer present, Shazwan said: “No, in the larger scheme of things. But having a second option for a Malay party would incentivise Umno to address reform calls more seriously.”

Oh said a political landscape where both Umno and PAS collectively win a significant number of seats would possibly result in a government that is more supremacist, conservative and religious in its outlook. ― Picture courtesy of Oh Ei Sun
Oh said a political landscape where both Umno and PAS collectively win a significant number of seats would possibly result in a government that is more supremacist, conservative and religious in its outlook. ― Picture courtesy of Oh Ei Sun

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Umno has the capability to run in GE15 without Bersatu and even up against Bersatu.

“Umno can actually afford to go it alone, because Umno has all the traditional conservative support, it has all the election machinery, whereas Bersatu has neither,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

If Umno were to run in GE15 with PAS as its partner, Oh said Umno would likely either maintain the number of seats won in 2018 or increase its haul, while Bersatu would not be expected to win many seats and would likely not exceed the number of seats it had won in 2018.

In such a scenario of an Umno-Bersatu clash in GE15, Oh said the federal Opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) would be unlikely to do very well in seats where Malay voters form the majority or significant portion of the population.

“Most of the Malay votes would go to either of the three parties, namely Umno, Bersatu and PAS. Mainly Umno and PAS, to a much lesser extent, Bersatu, unless as I’ve said, Muhyiddin does a very good job, thereby improving Bersatu’s prospects. I don’t see how the Opposition, namely the PH side, could make significant inroads in Malay-majority constituencies. So yeah, it is a question of who is taking the leading role in the next government among these three Malay parties,” he said.

Commenting on the possible outcome depending on the combination of overlaps in Malay-majority seats, Oh said: “If it is Umno vs PAS, I think the Opposition could make inroads, that’s how they won the 2018 general election; but if it’s Umno vs Bersatu, I think it doesn’t quite matter. If it’s Umno vs PAS vs Pakatan, then Pakatan perhaps could squeeze a win. But if it’s Umno vs Bersatu vs Pakatan, I think it’s still very much in Umno’s favour.”

Noting the significant number of conservative Malay voters which Malay parties would have to court and PAS itself which both Umno and Bersatu would have to court, Oh said the country is already heading towards a more conservative direction.

Oh said a political landscape where both Umno and PAS collectively win a significant number of seats would possibly result in a government that is more supremacist, conservative and religious in its outlook, but noted that this does not mean that Bersatu is a “moderating factor”: “In fact, Bersatu is trying its best to imitate or even surpass Umno in terms of accommodating PAS, that’s why you have all these increasingly religious-inspired measures being rolled out.”

Whether or not Umno or Bersatu wins in GE15 clashes, Oh said the country would still be steering towards a conservative pathway, with the only difference being a matter of how fast Malaysia goes down that route: “One way or the other, we are going into a more conservative direction. With Umno, it is already a very racially-supremacist party so of course it will just continue along that route. I think it’s a question of speed, Umno would just go on, and Bersatu would also catch up, but eventually I think it would be more or less the same.”

Jayum believes coalition-building to form government will continue. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Jayum believes coalition-building to form government will continue. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Jayum Jawan, professor of politics and government at Universiti Putra Malaysia, noted that Bersatu is already a strong political party that has been able to bring together a larger party to support it, despite its “numerical inferiority” compared to some stronger components. “It has the advantage of patronage as the dominant partner in PN and therefore could leverage on its position to further strengthen itself.”

Noting Umno’s ultimate ambition of taking over the government as the leading party as it holds the highest number of parliamentary seats within the PN coalition, Jayum said the party is however now in “disarray, judging by the many junior-ranked leaders making contradictory statements against its central leadership”.

“This is a sign that the Umno leadership is not holding up and at this juncture, it is difficult to assess who is in command and speaks for the party. The Emergency recommendation is made by the Cabinet, and members of the Cabinet also comprise Umno people,” he said.

He also noted that the declaration of withdrawal of support made by several Umno MPs — outside of Parliament — towards the PN government is perhaps “academic” and will not have any effect except to “cast aspersion in the public mind” on the ruling government and to “further destabilise” the ruling PN government, citing the court case involving former Sarawak chief minister Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan where it was decided that a vote of confidence at the legislative assembly is required to decide support in a government.

“For now, Umno will be trying to destabilise the PN government because it feels that it has a greater mandate to lead due to its superior number of parliaments seats,” he said.

Regardless of whether Umno remains as Bersatu’s ally or decides to cut ties with it, Jayum said there will still be a likelihood of the two parties clashing in GE15, due to the desire to win more seats as the party which commands the biggest number will lead in forming the next government and will need the numbers to provide a stable leadership in a coalition government.

“In GE15, clashes between Umno and any other parties — allies or not — are inevitable because all parties would want to try to contest as many seats and hopefully win as many seats. This is important as after the elections, the number of seats each party has will determine which party will be the dominant or backbone of any coalition,” he said.

The possible impact on Malaysia if Umno and Bersatu contest against each other in GE15 is “democratisation of politics”, Jayum said, noting: “It will be a good thing. Malaysians will see that representation can come from various parties and not be confined to one only.”

But regardless of whether Umno and Bersatu clashes in GE15, Jayum said Malaysia’s political landscape has already changed as a result of GE14 “that has witnessed the need of coalition building to form a viable ruling government”, adding: “And this is a good thing so that the government formed is based on the need to take into consideration the various needs of the multi-ethnic elements in the country.”

Even without the two parties clashing in GE15, Jayum believes coalition-building to form government will continue on, saying: “I think so because it is no longer up to Umno or Bersatu to dictate the political process, even within the Malay society. The Malay society has woken up and are availing themselves to better government and leadership by having alternatives or choices. It will still be Malays that will lead Malaysia, but which Malay group and from which political party.”

An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Moyog, Sabah September 21, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Moyog, Sabah September 21, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Associate professor Kartini Aboo Talib @ Khalid, who is the deputy director of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, however said it was too early to say whether Umno and Bersatu would be clashing in GE15 as they could still choose to stick together.

Kartini observed that Bersatu is a splinter party and a new party in the bloc with a small number of members.

“Bersatu cannot grow stronger overnight. It took years for DAP, PKR to gain support and this also applies to any splinter parties including Bersatu. Bersatu needs support from a more rooted party.

“Yes, they are having some issues right now, but I trust that they would be able to come out with a more feasible solution to stay together as a coalition,” she told Malay Mail when contacted.

As for Umno, Kartini said the party is “having a hard time adjusting to the new normal of the party is no longer the government and vice versa”, following a sudden change in 2018 after 60 long years as the main party of the ruling government.

Umno had once been synonymous as the ruling government for decades before GE14 when the coalition it was leading was defeated by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, and had only returned to power in late February and early March 2020 after a switch in political allegiances resulted in the PH government’s collapse and the installation of the PN government.

Kartini said the Emergency declared in Malaysia would allow the government to channel effort, money and energy towards economic recovery and combating Covid-19, instead of politicking, and would at the same time allow Umno and Bersatu within the PN coalition “to take a moment to rethink what is feasible for them”.

Kartini said the state of Emergency would give Umno time to rethink whether it wants to remain in a grand coalition with Bersatu as part of the PN administration, and added that the Umno annual general meeting (AGM) to be held will allow the party to “collect all opinions and decide what is best for Umno”.

Umno had previously said it will decide on its ties with Bersatu in its AGM initially scheduled for January 30 and January 31, but yesterday announced that it will be postponed — to a later, yet-to-be-announced date — in line with the Proclamation of Emergency and movement control order (MCO).

Speaking to Malay Mail before the Umno AGM’s postponement, Kartini had indicated it was too early to say how Umno and Bersatu’s ties would be, saying it was better to wait for the AGM’s outcome on their relationship.

“In fact, if they stay in one coalition I don’t think it is smart for the same coalition to contest against each other in GE15,” she added, noting that it would be a waste for both parties to fight each other if they remain in one coalition.

Kartini said the issue of whether Umno would stay as an ally or split up from Bersatu was due to two factors, namely Umno’s internal infighting due to the so-called “court cluster”, as well as Umno’s struggle to adjust with Bersatu being the main party and wanting to be restored to its past status as the leading party in the ruling government.

“Umno has to resolve the issue within Umno. It is not about PN. The ‘court cluster’ in Umno is causing break-ups and commotion in Umno. They are the seeds of problems,” she said.

The “court cluster” is a term that has been used to refer to senior Umno leaders who are currently facing criminal trials in court for alleged offences such as corruption, with those charged so far including Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Umno former president Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Umno treasurer-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor.

“For the Malays, they do not reject Umno as a whole; they know that the ‘court cluster’ in Umno is the main issue, and eventually, this cluster will be rejected by members and the people. Umno is more rooted among the Malays than Bersatu; this coming May 2021, Umno turns 75. At this age, Umno should be smart enough to rejuvenate by not letting money politics cloud Umno’s principle and goal for the nation,” Kartini said.

Despite the Malays currently being very much divided politically with the existence of many parties such as Umno, PAS, Bersatu, PKR, Amanah, Pejuang to represent them and even when they are quarrelling or rejecting one another, Kartini said they are still be able to come together in the name of Islam and that Hari Raya will iron all the differences they have.

Kartini said that this means that the “space for bargaining and negotiation is still open and large” even with Umno struggling to adjust to not being the leading party, adding that it will be “premature to predict that there will be a ‘clash of the titans’”.