Special Report
Special Report

The Heat is On for Umno

A divided Umno is under pressure
A divided Umno is under pressure

July 11, 2022

Power struggles and cracks within Umno’s leadership spilleth over as the opposition bickers and national election fever mounts. Who will get burnt? In her latest column, Dr BRIDGET WELSH examines the Umno heatwave that’s affecting the nation.

The shadows high on the darker side
Behind the doors, it’s a wilder ride
You can make a break, you can win or lose
That’s a chance you take, when the heat’s on you
The heat is on – Glenn Frey

 

The pressure’s high just to stay alive in Malaysian politics. This political summer, like the current Malaysian climate, is indeed hot, with humidity that extends into even the smallest crevice.

Similarly, the sun’s been shining on Umno, as the simmering tensions inside the party over leadership competition and election timing have erupted with revelations and open public attacks.

🎶 Oh-wo-ho, Umno 🎶

Rather than backroom and backstabbing manoeuvres, the political positioning has been blatantly open in a public passionate tango of steps. First the expulsion (of Tajuddin Abdul Rahman), then the explosive remarks (of Tajuddin and Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan), then an echo of past steps where levers of incumbency are used to shore up power (the coming decision of the Registrar of Societies (RoS) on the party polls, the ability to control the timing of a general election and the possible announcement of a post-budget election

Most analyses centre on the fight over personal interests and political survival. 2 men — former prime minister Najib Razak and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi — and 1 woman — Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor — facing the final gavel of courtroom decisions, another — current PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob — facing the potential end of his unexpected fantasy of holding the premiership, and yet others (too many to list) with dreams of their own to occupy the preeminent seat of power.

Ambition, angst and anger have become a potent mix at a time of political uncertainty. The party competition doesn’t just involve those at the top; it extends throughout patronage and personal networks across Umno.

Umno-Barisan Nasional preparing for battle

The open conflict is only the tip of the total ongoing manoeuvres, with the majority taking place behind the scenes.

The broadening of Umno’s political personal battles involves 2 fronts —- a general election, in which the party president controls decisions about candidacy, and a party election that’s currently postponed but with the persistent potential of coming earlier, triggered by legal decisions in the courtroom or by the RoS, which the PM is seen to control. 

Given the experience of those in Umno of the costs of being out of power post GE14 and the revived taste of assuming power from the Melaka and Johor polls, there is a frenetic intensity involved in the fight for political positions inside the party. 

“Ambition, angst and anger have become a potent mix at a time of political uncertainty.”

🎶 Beat’s so loud, deep inside 🎶

This juncture in the party’s history is different from the past.
While there are similar features of factionalism, personal betrayals/loyalties, patronage competition, generation pressures to accommodate younger leaders and persistent patterns of a handful of elites refusing to make way, the current context is one in which the prime minister does not hold the party presidency and is facing pressure from his own party leadership.

The battle for power effectively pits the party against a government comprising some of their own; where the power of holding position and resources in the party are being pitted against the power of holding office and control of the government.

It ain’t all rosy in the opposition camp either. Read Dr Bridget’s analyses of what went wrong for Pakatan Harapan’s Anwar Ibrahim & Co. in PKR’s recent leadership polls.

For the 1st major time in the less-than-a-year since he assumed (read: was gifted) the prime ministership, Ismail Sabri is starting to use the levers of his office.

The recent announcement from his office of election timing is illustrative: Ismail Sabri has made it clear he will consult Umno and his coalition partners and decide. He has taken a page from previous PMs, promising polls after a goodie, even if not necessarily good for Malaysia, budget.

It remains to be seen whether the decision on election timing will be taken away from Ismail Sabri in this contest with levers of power. Party leaders in Umno have considerable sway over enough MPs to bring down a government, as Ismail Sabri understands all too well given that it landed him in the premiership last August. 

“...Unlike previous PMs, Ismail Sabri doesn’t have the legitimacy of controlling the office of prime minister either from a party election, a public mandate or from his lacklustre performance.”

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🎶 Caught Up In The Action 🎶

The irony of the deeper and broader battle taking place inside Umno is that it’s an overdue reckoning, slowly rendered. Rather than remove the destructive forces and individuals in the party after 2018, wounds were allowed to fester, with the party being used as a host to keep those causing damage to it alive.

Importantly, unlike previous PMs, Ismail Sabri doesn’t have the legitimacy of controlling the office of prime minister either from a party election, a public mandate or from his lacklustre performance. He has yet to outline a vision for Malaysia’s future and, unlike his immediate predecessor, Muhyiddin Yassin, who faced similar legitimacy problems, has failed to attempt to appeal across class and ethnic communities. He’s an Umno PM without strong backing from his party and relying on a narrower political base.

Hence, Ismail Sabri is weaker and in a more vulnerable position. He is openly facing many contenders for his position. He is dependent on the opposition for government stability, a 3rd front that will be tested in the coming weeks as the MoU with Pakatan Harapan comes to a head at the end of the month. Umno’s internal divisions are once again causing national instability.

The reckoning coming from Umno is extending across the political spectrum, as the opposition will have to face hard decisions about alliances and agreements ahead. Politicians are, indeed, both caught and caught up in the current political action.

Umno leaders Najib Razak, Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi
Umno leaders Najib Razak, Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

🎶 It's on the street, tell me you can feel it 🎶

Traditionally battles in Umno extend to mobilisation in the street. This pattern is also quite different now. The people on the streets are mobilising themselves

The anxiety voters are feeling over rising prices and mismanagement of inflation is growing. Anti-elitist sentiments are even stronger, with palpable anger over unjust decisions against everyday folk and concerns over poor services, from Milo to the MRT.

The floods in Kedah evoked strong reactions from the suffering of families, yet simultaneously brought back traumas of those who suffered from flooding and unchecked abuses in land development. There is a reservoir of discontent simmering, especially concentrated among the young who have yet to adequately feel secure in Malaysia’s current uncertain economy. This is the same group that will make up the majority of voters in the coming election.  

Yet, importantly, public frustration is not (yet) channelled to the opposition, neither Pakatan Harapan nor Perikatan Nasional.

As with Umno, the parties in these political alternatives are caught up in their own internal battles. PKR, for example, has yet to formally announce its party results in its party convention and is far from resolving its internal divisions.

Party president Anwar Ibrahim’s Umno political roots remain rooted, as he is also following the pattern of leaders holding onto power for too long. PAS, too, is locked in its own internal battle over how it should ally itself for the coming polls, caught in the ties of befriending competing parties in its own power game. 

The baggage of the Sheraton Move weighs heavily. Pakatan is now facing its own (very slow) reckoning to move beyond the leadership competition and personalities that brought down the government in 2020. PAS on its part wrestles whether to carry Bersatu, whose political fortunes are more precarious than their own.  

And don’t expect the situation to cool down anytime soon. The heat is likely to continue to rise in an intense political summer, with little on immediate offer to chill ambitions and even less to ease pressures being faced by ordinary voters ahead.

The question is, who will get burnt?

Dr Bridget Welsh

Dr Bridget Welsh

DR BRIDGET WELSH is currently an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (Unari), based in Kuala Lumpur. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. Her writings can be found at bridgetwelsh.com.

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