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Special Report

Umno Party Polls: Zahid and the Golkarisation of Umno?

Zahid Umno 2
COMMENT | The Umno elections have come and gone and it’s certainly good news for party big boss Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. But is it equally good news for the future of the grand ol’ party? DR BRIDGET WELSH analyses the results and shares her thoughts.
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UMNO’S internal election results are in. And not surprisingly, allies to party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have bagged most of the positions.

This comes following the approval of a motion (and support of the home minister in granting a special exemption) that ensured the top 2 leadership positions were not challenged; a purging of vocal opponents; the dolling out government-linked appointments to loyalists, and Zahid showing that he holds a tight rein on the concentrated power of the Umno presidency. 

What is surprising, however, are the notable exceptions to this trend. 

There are 2 striking ones. First, of which, is the election of Johari Abdul Ghani as a party vice-president.

The Titiwangsa MP and recently appointed chair of the 1MDB-related task force represents a neutral position in the party and is a potential challenger to Zahid’s leadership over the long term as he has both access to resources and has proven to be capable of securing a political comeback, building a strong media profile and handling policy issues, especially the economy (an area where Zahid has yet to shine).

Johari has also served as finance minister II.

The second is the loss of de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said. 

Some had touted Azalina as potentially winning and becoming the 1st elected woman in senior party leadership as a vice-president. Her bid, however, failed as she came 4th, in no small part due to her close ties with Zahid, multiple candidates vying for the same position from her home state of Johor, and lack of adequate support from and for women. There, in fact, continues to be resistance to strong female leadership in Umno.  

In any event, while there were a handful of contests where Zahid loyalists lost, the party is now firmly under his control, at least until the 6 state elections expected in July. 

Importantly, the conflict in the party has dissipated, with those questioning Zahid’s leadership apparently defeated, or at least so the perception goes. 

Whether the conflict is well and truly over, however, will depend on whether Zahid can win back public support for the party, especially among its traditional supporters. Umno’s contemporary political history shows that victories can quickly become defeats.

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Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (Photo by Alyaa Alhadjri)

A New Godfather?

Regardless, the outcome of Umno’s polls reflects 3 major shifts taking place inside the party. 

Foremost is a change in the party’s patron, the political godfather dolling out patronage and positions. 

The 2022 party polls witnessed an ebbing of the influence of 5th prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as his appointees, including Azalina and former housing and local government minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican, lost. The purge of Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin foreshadowed this shift. 

Meanwhile, though ex-prime minister Najib Razak’s influence is still evident in the victories of his children Nooryana Najwa and Nazifuddin, it has moved from his personal power to that embodied by others (at least for now). Najib remains powerful, however, as many of those he brought into the party are in leadership positions and he has funds which the party is comparatively lacking. 

Najib’s core power comes from his access to social media and harnessing the nostalgia among party members of Umno’s 1MDB-funded golden age, a time when money and influence were unchecked. 

If Zahid fails electorally, it is Najib that will likely benefit, with heightened calls for his release. 

Umno’s core supporters (those that have stayed) remain locked in the past, nostalgic for days when Umno was in charge. 

At the same time, however, Umno is going through a change in its leadership composition. There is a displacement of Umno elite families. Zahid is the 2nd party president to not come from a traditional Malay elite family.

The 1st was former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was not born into the aristocracy, or a prominent religious or political family. 

Mahathir’s legacy in changing Umno was profound, not least of which is alleged corruption, centralisation of power and use of emotive racialised divide-and-rule politics that both split the party and the country. 

He left the party weakened, as he killed off capable leaders to prioritise political loyalty. Umno moved from being a party governing the nation to one serving its leader and his favoured devotees. An Umno world of entitlement was created, where those entering were to be enriched. 

Zahid comes from this Umno world. And like Mahathir, he is hungry for power without the legitimacy of being part of Malay traditional society. He has similarly prioritised loyalty, not merit. The uneven calibre of leadership in the party supreme council and desire to politically kill off skilled administrators such as former Johor menteri besar Hasni Mohammad speak to a corrosive pattern in ensuring political control, no matter what the consequences.  

Former Malaysia Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad

New Blood in Umno?

Along with displacement, however, there is replacement, with a new generation assuming leadership positions. 

A total of 54 out of the 187 or 29% of elected division chiefs are new faces. Many have taken over positions but are of the old mould in that they have the same outlook and goals and a focus on personal interests. 

Yet, there are also a handful of capable ones joining the other handful of capable ones that have survived the purge, those who see and even live in other worlds. 

The party’s just-elected youth leadership offers insights. 

Umno’s new Youth chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh was deeply popular when he was elected in Merlimau, in Melaka’s 2021 state polls. Known locally for his public service, he has risen in the ranks of a party that is starved for talent. 

He hitched his ride to the national leadership to gain the youth post, but stands out in that his standing comes from his local community and respect as a doctor. 

Umno’s new Puteri chief Nurul Aman Mohd Fauzi won despite not being part of Zahid’s camp, a testimony to her ability to garner support among women. There is a recognition that women are being side-lined in the party, but she has been an active organiser and fighter. 

Her prominence nationally comes from controversy over her remarks in an “amok case” in Penang in 2019, of which she was later cleared. Whether and what she learned from that experience has yet to emerge. But the fact that she was elected against the Zahid tide speaks to her tenacity. 

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A Displaced Party

New godfathers, and displacement or replacement, aside, the most important shifts are not those taking place within Umno. Rather, they involve Umno’s role in national politics. 

Some will look at Zahid’s victory in the party polls as a victory for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, shoring up support for his government. Another view is that strengthening Zahid weakens Umno’s electoral chances, as it did in the 15th general election (GE15), and further polarises national politics. 

Zahid’s poor record in GE15 is well-known and he faces an uphill task in the coming 6 state polls. 

Umno only won an estimated 32% of the Malay vote nationally and was decimated in 5 of the states where elections are to be held. In Kedah, Selangor and Kelantan, particularly, the party only won an estimated 21%, 23% and 37% of the Malay vote respectively. 

These are record lows in Umno’s electoral performance.

And losing an estimated 11% of the Malay vote in GE15 in Peninsular Malaysia as a whole on the back of repeated losses in 2013 and 2018 does not bode well for the party.

Indeed, if trends continue, Umno could be wiped out as a national party, and become reliant on winning seats in only a few states. 

More to the point, it faces serious displacement in the Malay heartland, with Perikatan Nasional (PN) already touting that the party has lost its legitimacy to represent the community. 

The path on the Umno horizon appears to be that of Golkar, Indonesia’s once-dominant party that has been now relegated to a secondary player, with pockets of regional support. ”

The Golkar Path

Clearly Umno has moved into a new role in national politics under Zahid. Essentially, this means the party is no longer poised to return to the No.1 position. 

Umno is also not following the paths of previous dominant parties that returned to national power, be it the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan or Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). 

In fact, the path on the Umno horizon appears to be that of Golkar, Indonesia’s once-dominant party that has been now relegated to a secondary player, with pockets of regional support. 

Golkar lost its nationwide relevance after the 1999 election as those socialised in the privileged Golkar world were sidelined by others hungry for power, a society wanting new dynamic leadership and democratic pressures calling on parties and party leaders to deliver, and adapt to a new context. Golkar leader Jusuf Kalla held the vice president’s position twice from 2004-2009 and again from 2014-2019 but the party has languished and contracted.

Needless to say, the party’s heyday is now long behind it, as corruption, leadership splits and a failure to reform itself eroded support for this once political giant. 

Golkar has become a party for its few elites rather than for its traditional mass base of the New Order. Today’s Indonesian leaders are coming from elsewhere, be it more populist parties such as President Joko Widodo’s Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP) or even new parties emerging out of Indonesia’s more competitive political environment, and demanding electorate. 

Malaysia’s Umno has missed (many) opportunities to change. The 2022 party polls had no mention of reform, or even resetting. The polls were even less democratic due to the stamping out of internal dissent. 

The stomping that took place was in defending positions. 

It is the 71% of older faces at the divisional level, locked in place, that keeps the party fixed in the past. Their concern with the spoils from positions has bred a culture that has resisted adapting to Malaysia’s changing society. There is a growing disconnect between Zahid’s leadership of Umno and the expectations of a changing electorate.  

Umno is now No.2. Whether the Umno faithful and voters will accept a secondary position is too early to assess. 

Umno has only itself to blame for moving itself towards less relevance.  Its myopic focus has been on protecting the Umno world, even as the world around the party changes.

Sadly, the Umno polls did little to change the challenges the party faces and arguably made said challenges harder to address;  Zahid has recreated his own Umno world.

The election shows that Umno is in survivor mode. Yet even with the new faces, a handful of promising capable leaders and a pause in internal party conflict, the pattern after the 2022 polls remains one of survival of a party less fit.

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.

Follow @dririshsea

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Between The Lines.

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