Umno’s democratic ideals sparkle

THE REAL DEAL: The lynchpin of Barisan Nasional has refined its system of elections to quell the troubles of the past

Azmi Anshar, NST

IN the unrelenting scrutiny of the Umno election this weekend and next, the truism that the president of Umno is always the prime Minister is undisputed: in fact, this empowering axiom is feverishly reinforced.

Check out the noise generated by print and digital media on the Umno polls: whatever the party does or says is vigorously reported, the organisation being a barometer of any power shift, future policies and national blueprint.

For example, provocative issues volleying venomously between key Umno leaders and responded by Barisan Nasional allies and opposition alike, have an impact, no matter how subtle, on party affairs and the polls’ outcome.

For every Umno leader occupied with party politicking and under-the-radar campaigning, there is a silent backer or critic out there whose activism adds, or somehow augments, the leader’s lustre, exposure and reputation.

Key Umno leaders involved in slanging matches with opposition parties, for instance, seem to solidify their polls chances: they may tip-toe over the ruling against direct campaigning, but because their official position demands that they react to all comers, they stand head and shoulders over their competitors.

These give them an edge, especially if they hold cabinet or other strategic posts, as opposed to their ordinary challengers who barely muster a squeak: it was natural that they appealed to the Umno disciplinarians to allow more wriggle room for direct campaigning.

There lies Umno’s paradox: for a party that prides itself in its democratic principles, from the stiff contests at its divisional grassroots to its wings and its supreme council, Umno is diffident, prickly even, on contenders’ campaigning.

For candidates, there are the quaint state by state get-togethers for face time with a limited number of divisional delegates. But there can be no preening in front of the media and no proximity with the 146,500 divisional voting members (350,000 if you add Wanita, Youth and Puteri wings), meaning candidates can’t advertise as they would in a general election.

A proposed debate between the six vice-presidential candidates on prime time TV elicits frowns from senior leaders, though the grassroots think it would be a hoot to view the six fighting ferociously on stage.

Bear in mind that face-to-face campaigning restrictions are confined to distributing name cards bearing a candidate’s mugshot, name and candidature number. The candidates can lobby for votes through social media, and that part of the hustings is lively.

That’s the rub: if Umno via BN can do a full-blown campaign directly to voters, even shake hands and pass goodies, why can’t the same be permitted in party polls? The simple answer is, experience and a troubled past.

In the spasmodic years of 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1993, and just before 1996, what used to be artful and gracious campaigning degenerated into a veritable snake pit — malicious “flying letters”, backbiting and sabotage — and that was on a good day.

On a bad day, someone might just fire a pistol to stop a furniture-throwing contest, supporters get into fisticuffs, ambitious aspirants hire witch-doctors to guarantee wins (one aspirant was cut up in pieces by an overzealous bomoh) and disgruntled losers filed a lawsuit to the detriment of the party.

In between the skirmishes, the nastiest travesty transpired — big money bribes, first as a simple transaction but later, as delegates take advantage of opposing candidates’ vulnerability, virtually auctioned off their votes to the highest bidder. By the way, losing candidates get no refunds.

To stop the debauchery, the non-direct campaigning ruling was enforced for the 1996 polls and stayed from there on.

Curiously, the late Tun Ghafar Baba had suggested a radical approach to neutralise money politics: make it legal by roughly following the American method of allowing campaign funds and contributions, with transparent limits and how such funds are distributed.

Ghafar’s “if you can’t beat them, then join them” philosophy didn’t get any traction when he verbalised the idea in 1985 before incredulous Kelantan Umno leaders attending a weekend course in Tumpat.

Intriguingly, Ghafar’s vision to quell money politics just when it was getting its legs was imparted following the sensational entry into Umno of a young upstart, whose path to power was as if the Red Sea was parted for him.

This time though, the electoral base that was radically expanded to allow that many members to vote may just about shut out the money politics scourge: ambitious contenders insane enough to buy their way in would have to spend an inordinately huge amount to cover at least half of the voter members.

Whatever Umno’s fallibility, there is no shaking off its top-dog tag since general elections in 1960 and by contrast, widely transparent than the opposition parties’ specious democratic credentials despite their pretentious claims of democracy.