With bickering at all-time high, is it deja vu for Umno?

Umno may be seeing history repeating itself 32 years after Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah led a faction out of the party following his fallout with party president Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

(FMT) – In 1987, Malaysia was experiencing an economic recession that saw unemployment hit 7.5%. Today, the country is again struggling with a shrinking economy and high unemployment amid a health crisis, and it looks like Umno is back to square one, with an all-time high in internal backstabbing.

Soon after the Perikatan Nasional government took over Putrajaya with the help of Barisan Nasional in February 2020, some Umno leaders began to complain that the PPBM-led coalition was sidelining their party in the running of the country.

This caused a crack in Umno. Several MPs with government positions continued to back Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, but others snubbed the premier, whose party is made up largely of Umno defectors.

Some analysts have predicted that more MPs are expected to jump from Umno to PPBM following party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s statement that the party would cut ties with Perikatan Nasional if elections were not called soon. Umno members with ministerial positions have been ordered to be ready to quit when told to do so.

Socio-political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi said the 1987 Umno split clearly showed that the president won because he had control of the party machinery and hierarchy.

“Now it is the same. The president has the advantage. He controls the structure of the party and the machinery. He still signs the candidacy letters for those contesting in elections. Even if there are party elections, the president is likely to win due to the powers he has.”

However, Awang Azman also said Zahid was facing a mounting challenge from Umno leaders in the “Cabinet cluster”, the ministers who are backing Muhyiddin so as to retain their positions. It is known that some feel it is Zahid who should relinquish his position because he is facing charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption and money laundering in court.

“As for the Cabinet cluster, their strength is assistance from the government,” Awang Azman said. “But they would still need the Umno president’s backing to contest in elections.”

They will have to decide what to do when Umno decides to leave the government, probably in August.

Some want party elections called soon in the hope that Zahid can be voted out and a more amenable man will be in charge so they do not have to resign their positions. Some may even consider switching parties if they are forced to quit as ministers.

The situation is likely to be different if presidential polls are held after the general election as those who lose in the party elections are unlikely to leave the party.

Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia said it was clear that Umno was already split into factions and the party was in crisis.

He noted that Zahid had said MPs with no loyalty to Umno should leave the party to allow it to organise itself for the general election.

Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani of Universiti Utara Malaysia said the crisis was still manageable, adding that he believed the ministers would leave their positions at an appropriate time, such as when Parliament is dissolved.

However, it is not known if the general election will be held this year. Muhyiddin has said it will be held when the Covid-19 situation improves.

Three days ago, former prime minister Najib Razak said having the Umno elections early might divide and weaken the party further. The losers might be enticed by rival parties, he added.

The idea for early party elections was mooted by science, technology and innovation minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who said the elections, which are set to be held this year, should be expedited so the party’s internal conflicts can be settled before the general election.