Previous Umno splits show Najib can stay on


Norshahril Saat, Malay Mail Online

The annual assembly of Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) taking place this week has garnered more attention than in previous years because of developments over the past year that have raised questions on the political longevity of party president and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The theme of the Umno president’s speech normally hinges on Malay supremacy, but some implicitly advocate for unquestioning loyalty to the leader. Given the current political climate in Umno, one would expect Najib’s opening address at this year’s assembly — to be held from tomorrow to Saturday — to sing the same tune. Loyalty is central to Malay political culture, as pointed out by intellectual Chandra Muzaffar in his 1979 book titled Protector?. During the Malay feudal era dating back to the Malacca Sultanate period, disloyalty to the ruler meant treason.

Today, a section within Umno is demanding that the Prime Minister respond regarding questionable deals by state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and RM2.6 billion in donations that were transferred to his bank account. Some Umno branch leaders have formed a movement called Coalition of Branch Chiefs Malaysia (GKCM), calling for Najib’s resignation. The strength of this group is not clear and some consider it marginal. Ahmad Maslan, the Umno information chief, claimed that only 15 branches out of 21,000 in the country are making such demands.

Since its formation in 1946, UMNO has experienced splits among its top leaders. The current split — resulting from Najib’s removal from the Cabinet of Muhyiddin Yassin as Deputy Prime Minister and Shafie Apdal as Rural and Regional Development Minister — is quite serious, but not as damaging as those in the past. Although past splits had undermined Umno, the party had always managed to recover and stay in power. It is through consolidating non-Malay support by leading the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, as well as retaining electoral rules that favours it, that Umno has remained the country’s ruling party since 1957. The question remains: What can Najib learn from past splits and can he emerge from this year’s assembly unscathed? Will Umno members file a motion to remove him?

Past Umno splits

In 1951, Umno witnessed its first split when party founder Onn Jaafar resigned from the party. Onn believed Umno should open its membership to non-Malays, but the move was rejected by most party members. Tunku Abdul Rahman took over Umno’s leadership from Onn and led the party to power in 1957.

Umno’s second split occurred after the riots on May 13, 1969. Disgruntled by Tunku’s leadership, the Malay ultras in the party pressured him to resign. He did so the following year and Tun Abdul Razak took over as Prime Minister. Najib’s father then revived the political careers of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Mr Musa Hitam, Tunku’s harshest critics.

Almost two decades later, another split occurred. In 1986, Musa resigned as Deputy Prime Minister in Dr Mahathir’s Cabinet, but remained as Umno deputy president. During the 1987 assembly, Musa joined Razaleigh Hamzah — dubbed the Father of Malaysia’s Economy for his pivotal role in economic policymaking — in challenging Dr Mahathir. But the pair lost and were removed from the party by Dr Mahathir.

The removal of “disloyal” party members was also seen during the 1998 split. That year, Dr Mahathir sacked Anwar Ibrahim as the Deputy Prime Minister and also rallied the Umno Supreme Council to remove him from the party. Many Anwar loyalists left Umno and Dr Mahathir ensured only those loyal to him remained in the party. In 2009, the undercurrents calling for party leader Abdullah Badawi’s resignation was strong after the party’s poor showing in the previous year’s elections. Dr Mahathir actively pushed for Abdullah’s resignation and succeeded with the support of several Cabinet ministers, including then Umno vice-president, Muhyiddin. Abdullah eventually caved in and handed over power to his deputy, Najib.

Possible scenarios

Despite all the past splits, Umno remains the dominant Malaysian party, 70 years after its formation in 1946. During the 2013 elections, it was the best-performing party within the Barisan Nasional coalition. Judging from past splits in Umno, Najib’s fate could go either way: He could be removed, like Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mr Abdullah. This scenario could unfold if disgruntled voices in Umno are united. For this to happen, there has to be a charismatic leader, probably a member of the Supreme Council, to champion the disgruntled camp’s cause. In the case of Tunku in 1969, it was the young Turks such as Dr Mahathir who led the charge to topple the Prime Minister. In 2009, it was Muhyiddin, with Dr Mahathir’s support, who boldly requested his boss to step down. In this current split, the disgruntled team is once again looking to Dr Mahathir to champion their demands. But this time, age may be catching up with the 90-year-old statesman.

In fighting back, Najib could also do what Dr Mahathir did in 1987 and 1998 to stay in power: Remove all critics and replace them with his supporters. However, Najib currently does not enjoy the same support within Umno as Dr Mahathir did then. Dr Mahathir also turned to non-Malays to shore up support for BN in the 1999 general election. But again, Najib does not have this option, as voting patterns in the past two elections show. The best strategy for Najib now is to unite Umno again, make peace with Dr Mahathir and the disgruntled camp, and play up the notion of loyalty to the leader, which has been part of Umno’s political culture.

Early signs show that appeasing Dr Mahathir is the step Umno’s leaders will be taking. Cabinet ministers Khairy Jamaluddin and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have welcomed Dr Mahathir to the assembly, and they will treat him with respect, even though he will not make any speeches.

But this move may be insufficient for Najib to stay in power for long, unless he reinstates his inclusive agenda, embodied in One Malaysia, to ensure he has the support of non-Malays. The voices of dissent could well grow if Umno delegates remain unconvinced by Najib’s explanation on 1MDB and the RM2.6 billion donation.

The priority of Umno is to win the next general election — which must be called by August 2018. If the party rank and file perceives that Najib is not the man to lead Umno to victory, his days as political leader could be numbered.