With party polls over, what is Umno’s future now?

Ida Lim, Malay Mail Online

Now that the Umno election is done and dusted, what lies ahead for the country’s biggest Malay party as the federal opposition and in the next general election?

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi won a five-man contest yesterday to be Umno president for the next three years, but he will be taking on the top position at a time when the challenges are stacked up against the once-ruling party.

Immediate challenges

Ibrahim Suffian, programmes director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, cited the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption case as one of the matters that would put Umno through a difficult period.

“The next few years will be tough for Umno because the legal case on 1MDB and other scandals will continue to damage the party’s image.

“So it needs a strong leader to keep it united in the face of external shocks it will undoubtedly encounter,” he told Malay Mail when contacted yesterday.

“It is anticipated that some MPs and other leaders will leave the party and make their way to PPBM. So it will be a time of flux,” he added, referring to the current ruling party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

Pacific Research Centre’s principal adviser Oh Ei Sun predicted that there would be an “exodus” of Umno members from the party including those were defeated or their supporters and some of the “disappointed elites”, telling Malay Mail that this would especially include those who are elected lawmakers.

Research firm Ilham Centre’s executive director Hisommudin Bakar said Zahid now faces the “heavy mission” of raising morale among Umno members.

He said Zahid will have to restrict members and leaders from continuing to exit the party due to flagging morale resulting from the GE14 defeat.

“If he fails to block the culture of jumping parties, Umno will face a challenging future to rise up again,” he said.

Effective Opposition?

Ibrahim said an opposition party’s effectiveness would depend on its leadership and the latter’s willingness to surround themselves with competent advisers.

“Zahid needs to change the thuggish and crude image that is sometimes associated with Umno and attune it to the values of the present electorate if it is [to] be relevant,” he told Malay Mail, having suggested Zahid’s presidency rival and reforms advocate Khairy Jamaluddin to be tapped to aid the party.

Ibrahim noted that Umno now “needs to consolidate after its massive loss” in the 14th general elections, and has to go through a transition period before it can truly embark on reforms and change its operating culture.

“If the new leaders are mindful about their future, they should co-opt people like Khairy and deploy them to address the issues hobbling the party,” he said.

Ibrahim pointed out that the 15th general elections is still five years away, and indicated that there was still potential for change within Umno three years down the road.

“There will be another Umno election in 2021, it could change direction then once party is stabilised and new people are brought in.

“Given how well Khairy has performed, it would be to Zahid’s advantage to bring him in to some role in order to capture the change that people want,” he said.

Which way to go?

Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said Umno is itself a party that is already relatively conservative, but believed that Zahid would lead the party in a “more conservative direction” that he said would not appeal to a more multiracial society in Malaysia.

“Malaysia is looking toward a more moderate Umno which does not translate through electing Zahid as the president.

“I would believe, many young people would not welcome Zahid as their leaders unless Zahid [does] something that attracts the young to accept his leadership. This is a very huge task,” he said.

“With his brand of politics, I would find it is difficult for him to revive Umno. He needs to transform himself as a leader for all Malaysians, not only Umno,” Azizuddin added.

Oh however described Zahid as an “opportunist”, saying: “He will be conservative or liberal as it suits him. Money politics will still be order of the day in Umno.”

When asked if Zahid could lead Umno or Barisan Nasional (BN) to a greater win in the next general elections, Oh replied: “If their accounts are unfrozen, certainly.”

Reports have emerged over the past few days of Umno bank accounts being frozen as part of the authorities’ investigation into 1MDB.

Hisommudin highlighted the importance of Umno becoming a strong opposition party to act as checks and balances to the PH government, further saying that the party could yet regain support from voters.

“Umno still has its strengths in the segment of Malay votes and rural votes. The voters’ disappointment is more on Najib Razak’s errors. If Umno succeeds in offering a recovery plan, the disappointed and angry votes may return,” he said, referring to Zahid’s predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak.