Would an Umno election now sort out its problems? Analysts say, ‘Maybe, maybe not’

An Umno member arrives for the party's 2020 general assembly in Kuala Lumpur March 28, 2021. ― Bernama pic
An Umno member arrives for the party's 2020 general assembly in Kuala Lumpur March 28, 2021. ― Bernama pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 5 — Will party polls be the best way for Umno to “reset” itself and move forward?

Political analysts are divided about the outcome of having party elections at this time as the party is rife with internal squabbles and open hostilities as witnessed at its recently concluded general assembly or PAU 2020.

Anis Anwar Suhaimi, a senior researcher at think tank O2 Malaysia, feels party elections would be the best course of action for Umno.

“The irony stems from the following situation; the president and supreme council have been given the mandate to determine when to pull Umno’s support from Perikatan Nasional (PN) and direct its ministers and deputy ministers to resign, latest by August.

“However, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, chairman for Barisan Nasional’s (BN) advisory council, stressed that those in government positions need to resign to level the playing field before the party elections.

“This begs the question, do they want the ministers and deputy ministers to stay in the government or the other way around? These contradicting directions coming from the leadership cause more confusion to the people,” Anis told Malay Mail.

Last month, after the conclusion of PAU 2020, Khairy Jamaluddin who is the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, called on Umno to hold party elections this year, in order to resolve its internal issues ahead of the next general election.

In a social media post, he said that the party election which is scheduled for later this year must go through to ensure solidarity in facing the upcoming 15th general election (GE15).

However, Umno’s former president Najib felt that holding party elections before GE15 could cause the political party to weaken further and lose members to other political parties.

Najib said those who lost in party polls may be poached by other political parties to act as candidates in GE15. Najib added that it would not be fair to have elections for Umno’s leadership positions if contenders with positions in government do not give up such posts.

Anis said Khairy’s suggestion that Umno hold its 2021-2024 elections is a move that is “very viable to Umno’s needs today”, especially as GE15 is poised to happen anytime soon after the end of the current state of Emergency.

“Umno’s direction going into the elections would best be spearheaded by the new consolidated leadership for the term of 2021-2024. It would be weird for the leadership whose mandate will mature in June/July 2021 to be calling the shots and determine the fate of the party for the next five years.

“If Barisan Nasional (BN) wants to go solo and win the GE15, party leaders need to take heed of the example portrayed when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned in 2003,” he said.

Anis said that following Tun’s resignation, his successor Tun Abdullah Ahamd Badawi managed to restore the people’s confidence as seen by BN’s popular votes in the 2004 national polls which was as high as 90.4 per cent, compared to the 1999 election, at 76.6 per cent.

He said this only strengthens the idea that having clean (and young) leaders will help garner more support from the people.

Anis added that it was also not Umno members’ conventional practice to resign their Cabinet posts before competing in the party polls.

“If this were the case, assuming it sets a new precedent, should the Cabinet members of Umno resign each time the party holds an election? Therefore, the question of an uneven playing field is not the main issue to contend with, as the people are generally aware and know the extent of the capacity, strength, and position of Umno leaders, even if they have no position in the Cabinet,” he said.

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) political sociologist Prof Sivamurugan Pandian also agrees with Anis, saying that Umno would not lose out if it holds its party polls now, as it is already fragmented.

He said that given the widening rivalry within the nationalist party’s leaders, some risks are needed.

“The party is already divided. They might as well test the leadership via an election and allow whoever takes over to unite and focus on solidarity.

“Some might leave and at least loyalists would remain to make sure that the party remains relevant and significant.

“Under current circumstances, the crisis is getting worse and managing the crisis might need some risk and sacrifices from party leaders,” Sivamurugan added.

However, geostrategist Professor Azmi Hassan agreed with Najib, saying that a party poll now would spell disaster for Umno, which is struggling to consolidate support from within.

“If you look at last weekend’s Umno general assembly, there was basically no calls for a changing of the guards... for example because of Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s court case, I’m sure there would have been a rumble during that particular general assembly, but again, I am sure Umno has its Plan B if Zahid is found guilty,” he said.

He said while the objective is to have fresh leadership to chart the course for Umno, such an idea would backfire instead, especially since Umno members, including its ordinary party members, are very much desired by other parties.

“Especially members holding positions in branches or divisions, because Bersatu (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) likes to entice these types of members. So the losing side, like Datuk Seri Najib said, will be inclined to jump ship, to change party, because they are on the losing side and they don’t see any future in Umno. So I concur with Datuk Seri Najib saying that it won’t do any good, because Umno will be more severely fragmented after the party polls,” Azmi said.

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, senior associate with political risk and public policy consultancy Vriens & Partners, feels that there would be no clear beneficiary from the Umno party polls, if the party does not commit to reform.

“If it goes to the polls, Zahid’s critics will benefit, because obviously when you have party polls, people will see that Umno is not really united. Whatever control he showcased during PAU 2020 will be challenged.

“I think it depends on who wins, but one thing is for sure, no matter whose faction wins, the process of restoring Umno’s credibility is still going to be a tall order and there still is going to be tough times ahead. It no longer is the party it was two or three years ago, and it has to live with that reality.

“Also, whoever wins will need to learn how to make Umno relevant again to the people. There definitely is a need to start afresh,” Shazwan added.

He said that even if Zahid retains his presidency, he still needs to bring fresh ideas to the table.

“Anyone can be a winner, but what does this mean for the party? The party elections, whatever results come, it does not necessarily translate as a win for Umno itself, because the win will only come if the leadership undertakes reforms needed,” Shazwan added.

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