By Hook or by Crook? Umno’s Early GE15 Miscalculations

After months of Umno applying pressure, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob finally caves and dissolves Parliament. But is triggering snap polls really the power move Umno thinks it is? Political analyst DR BRIDGET WELSH believes the party may not have necessarily considered all angles.

Well, Malaysia’s election is on, come hell or high water. And the 15th general election (GE15), which Umno wanted, presents an opportunity to reduce legal pressure on some of its leaders and for the party to potentially return to power in a coalition where Umno sets the rules.

After the Melaka and Johor polls, there was reason for confidence, what with Umno-Barisan Nasional (BN) winning 75% and 71% of the seats, respectively. For months thereafter, Umno leaders relentlessly pushed for GE15, with now-caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob finally buckling to pressure last week, and proving to be a party man rather than his own man.

Instead of save Malaysia” or “save Malaysians”, Zahid has adopted a “save the party” (more accurately “save the elites of the party”) approach.

Time of destiny?

There still is good reason for Umno-BN to be confident.Of the 3 major coalitions going into polls, it’s the most prepared and has shown in the last 2 state elections that it can best mobilise supporters.

Beyond lower turnouts and disappointment with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, 2 factors contributed to Umno’s recent electoral gains — the impact of Perikatan Nasional (PN) winning the vote share previously won by PH and thus, turning 3-cornered fights to Umno’s advantage; and gains in support, particularly from Indian voters.

If post-2021 trends continue, Umno-BN could win easily. On top of that, there is the potential that the “kingmaker” role of Sabah and Sarawak will be reduced, especially if Umno wins back seats in Sabah, and if PAS gains seats and makes a deal with Umno to return to the federal government.

So far, Zahid has embarrassed Umno nationally and internationally with his remarks and style. He is a relic from Umno past, living in a new political context. Rather than use the pulpit to project reasons for the public to vote for the party, he has used the attention to project himself and instead, come off as Umno’s bully, albeit a cunning one.

On the ground, quietly but determinately, Umno has been pushing a racialised survivalist campaign, reminding its traditional supporters of the threat of supposed “Malay displacement” of not voting for the party.

It has painted itself as the chosen one, the “destined winner”, plugging into nostalgia for a long-gone era of certainty at a time of uncertainty.

In particular, Umno has reached out to the business community, most of whom are fed up with the inadequate attention to the economy, navel-gazing politicking, and lack of consistent policy delivery that has characterised too much of governance since 2018.

Umno has repeated a claim (unsubstantiated in Melaka and Johor) that returning it to the helm will strengthen the economy and bring back investment, sweetening the pot with the promise of even greater spending if it is re-elected.

In many ways, with high expectations, GE15 is Umno’s to lose. Ironically, this follows the path of all earlier general elections in which Umno had an advantage. Yet, what is striking about the first week of GE15 post-dissolution campaigning is how much the party is going about losing it.