Commentary: UMNO’s break with Bersatu could come at a high price for Malaysia

After UMNO’s general assembly meeting, the shifting sands of coalition politics and UMNO’s polarising announcement make the road ahead rockier, says James Chin.

(CNA) – Last Sunday (Mar 28), UMNO did what was widely anticipated but thought impossible at its annual party assembly.

It passed a resolution calling on UMNO to face the next general election (GE) alone.

In practice, this means cutting ties with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), its partner in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

It was a huge victory for Zahid Hamidi, UMNO’s president and Najib Razak, the former president, who were the main agitators behind UMNO’s exit.

Without these numbers to form a parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin would have no choice but to call for an early GE.

To say this is awkward for Muhyiddin is an understatement. He tried hard to get his UMNO allies in the party to stop the resolution but to no avail.

The groundswell in UMNO was against Bersatu, in part because many UMNO members believe Bersatu is plotting to replace UMNO as the dominant Malay party in Malaysia.

UMNO leaders are also extremely angry Bersatu has sidelined them in government posts and government contracts. Despite being the largest party with the biggest numbers of elected MPs in March 2020, UMNO only had nine Cabinet positions and few of the plum posts.


Muhyiddin’s gameplan to split UMNO has failed. His champion, Minister of Federal Territories Annuar Musa, who argued that UMNO should work with Bersatu, has been completely sidelined.

Annuar was labelled a “pest” and worse when Zahid challenged him on Sunday to put his money where his mouth is. Referring to Annuar, Zahid spoke of a minister who has “stabbed UMNO in the back” and said, “if he’s a man, he should resign as minister”.

Another critic, UMNO Putrajaya division deputy chief Tun Faisal Ismail, saw his membership suspended for six years for criticising Zahid openly, an unusually long period.

If anything, the general assembly has strengthened Zahid’s and Najib’s hands, who are now calling the shots. If Muhyiddin wishes to stay in power, he cannot bypass them anymore.

They have undermined UMNO factions sympathetic to Muhyiddin. By consolidating internally, UMNO can now make more aggressive demands of Bersatu and there is one both leaders may have in mind. Zahid and Najib have been agitating for Muhyiddin to use his influence to stop these corruption trials against UMNO leaders.

UMNO’s general assembly comes right after the High Court hearing of Zahid’s corruption charges presented by the prosecution. Zahid’s defence claimed the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s case was politically motivated. His case will see resumption of oral and written submissions in June.

Najib’s is also pending an appeal, as is another senior UMNO member, Tengku Adnan Mansor’s graft case.


Zahid knows the timing to take the fight to Muhyiddin is right. The UMNO grassroots are all fired up and spoiling for a fight with Bersatu.

It is no accident UMNO’s Johor chief minister Hasni Mohammad, during his speech at the UMNO assembly, said Muhyiddin himself will lose if he contests the Pagoh parliamentary seat in the next GE.

“I was informed (by UMNO’s Pagoh division) support for Perikatan Nasional in Pagoh is only 19.8 per cent,” he added.

UMNO still has a formidable election machinery in the rural areas and can easily beat Bersatu’s election machinery in the Malay areas.


The unintended consequence of UMNO’s break with Bersatu is the leverage other parties in the coalition have gained. It has placed PAS, with 18 parliamentary seats, in a powerful position. PAS could play kingmaker but it is likely to do nothing.


PAS has always dreamt of having power in the federal government so that it can push for more conservative Islamic laws. With inaction on the UMNO-Bersatu fallout, both are likely to accede to PAS’ demands as they try to court its support.

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