Unity that’s not meant to be

“The real challenge for Umno is to contain intra-party issues, namely internal sabotage and resentment against those picked to stand as candidates. If Umno fails to manage this, then the party risks facing yet another dismal performance like the previous general election.”

(NST) –  IT was a windy day, with rain expected as the monsoon transition usually brings an evening rainfall, which sometimes escalates into thunderstorms at this remote village in Baling about 100km from here.

Mohd Shaari Hassan, 60, was staring at the line of party flags lining the compound of his house.

There was a white skullcap adorned with green Pas and red Umno logos — with the script Perpaduan ummah (contextually, it means Malay and Muslim unity) stitched on its side — resting on the display rack in the living room of his traditional Malay house.

“I haven’t put on that skullcap for sometime now,” said Shaari.

The skullcap is a symbol of the unification of the two largest Malay parties in the country that have been at loggerheads over the past few decades.

Both parties recently opened — and shut — their doors to a mutual cooperation after the Umno-led Barisan Nasional’s shocking defeat to Pakatan Harapan in the 14th General Election (GE14) in May 2018.

BN suffered four more losses in by-elections held in the following months in 2018.

The tide turned to BN’s favour only after the Cameron Highlands by-election in January 2019.

“It was a sweet victory,” said Shaari, referring to the BN’s win in the by-election achieved through a pact with Pas.

As a staunch supporter of Pas, Shaari shared the pride as it was the votes of his fellow party supporters that handed BN the much-needed reprieve.

Umno and Pas continued their unofficial cooperation to defeat their common adversary PH in the following five by-elections.

In September 2019, the presidents of both parties inked the Muafakat Nasional Charter to pave the way for an official electoral pact ahead of the next general election.

The “Perpaduan ummah” mantra had reunited many Kedah Malay families and friends who were divided by political ideologies.

Beyond the Malay-Muslim unity agenda, forging an electoral pact was a sensible move for both parties in facing the next general election.

In GE14, Kedah BN only managed to retain the two parliamentary seats of Padang Terap and Baling, while losing 10 seats to PH and three to Pas.

PH wrested five seats — Langkawi, Jerlun, Kubang Pasu, Merbok, Kulim-Bandar Baharu — from Umno, while losing Pendang, Jerai and Sik to Pas.

PH also retained the Kuala Kedah, Alor Star, Sungai Petani, Padang Serai seats, while Pas lost Pokok Sena after incumbent Datuk Mahfuz Omar, who left the party to form Parti Amanah Negara, won the seat.

Based on the GE14 score cards, if Umno were to cooperate with Pas, the combined votes garnered by them would have been higher than those of PH in eight parliamentary seats. For instance, there would be a vote margin of 12,832 between BN-Pas and PH in Pokok Sena, 9,546 in Merbok and 6,547 in Jerlun.

An electoral pact between Umno-BN and Pas might keep both parties from competing against each other, boosting their chances of winning in multi-cornered fights. However, it turned out that the talks between both parties officially reached a dead end recently.

Shaari said: “If Umno refuses to work with Pas, so be it. We will square off with them again. We are used to that.”

The Pas Central Working Committee recently decided to strengthen the cooperation with PN component parties to face GE15 based on the perpaduan ummah principle.

A state Pas insider said the decision was made following the collapse of a final round of talks between leaders of both parties.

“Our (Pas) leaders have done everything possible to avoid clashing with Umno, but it seems things just did not work after all.

“We all know very well how this will affect the chances of both parties.

“The worst thing is, PH will stand to benefit from this judging by the GE14 results,” he told the New Straits Times.

On the other hand, a source in the Kedah Umno election machinery said Pas’ refusal to withdraw from PN and sever its ties with Bersatu were the main reasons that led to the failed negotiations.

“Umno has made it very clear. Bersatu is our No. 1 enemy, besides PH,” said the source.

He claimed that Umno stood a better chance to perform well in GE15 compared with the previous general election.

“The 1MDB corruption case is no longer an issue and Tun (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) is no longer in PH. We do not foresee a similar political tsunami like in GE14 taking shape in this upcoming polls.”

He said Umno had identified Padang Terap and Baling as safe seats for BN.

“The Langkawi, Jerai, Merbok and Sik parliamentary seats are considered gray areas. Our election machinery will work hard to win over the voters in those seats.”

Political analyst Professor Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani of Universiti Utara Malaysia said he was not surprised by the collapse of talks between Umno and Pas.

“Kedah will be one of the states to watch in GE15 due to the presence of GTA (Gabungan Tanah Air) led by Tun Dr Mahathir.

“This will further split the Malay votes. On paper, Umno and Pas have the advantage in rural seats, whereas PH has the upper hand in urban and suburban seats. It will be interesting to watch the outcome.”

Azizuddin said he did not expect the voting pattern to change drastically compared with GE14.

“The real challenge for Umno is to contain intra-party issues, namely internal sabotage and resentment against those picked to stand as candidates. If Umno fails to manage this, then the party risks facing yet another dismal performance like the previous general election.”

He said the additional 80,000 first-time voters, including youths aged between 18 and 21, would not make much impact in GE15.

“The main question is whether they will make use of their voting rights and it is hard to predict where the votes will go since most of them are not affiliated to any political party or ideology.”