The Beginning of the End for Malaysia’s Oldest Political Party

Will Anwar cut Zahid loose?

By: Murray Hunter

The turmoil in the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s oldest and once its most-powerful political party, came to a head this weekend when a special UMNO Supreme Council meeting sacked Khairy Jamaluddin, formerly the party’s rising star, for an attempt to lead a party insurrection, along with Selangor divisional head Nor Omar, and suspended four others from membership for six years. Some political analysts are predicting the party could simply implode.

The sackings and suspensions – of former defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein, Shahril Sufian Hamdan, Maulizan Bujang, and Salim Sharif – came after Khairy, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, announced he would challenge UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for his post in May. Despite winning accolades as health minister in taking over and running the country’s altering campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus, he was in bad odor in the party for his perceived outsize ambition and his attempts to broaden party appeal beyond its ethnic Malay base to other minorities. He was forced to contest a new parliamentary seat in the most recent election.

Zahid, under indictment for corruption, early in January maneuvered at the party congress to suspend elections for the top two party posts so that he and his deputy Mohamad Hasan could continue to lead the party for a further two years. The suspension of elections for the top two positions set off deep outrage among rank-and-file party members, who are reported to be leaving the party in droves. There is now some consensus that UMNO has completely lost its way.

Since its inception in 1946, the party has been intertwined with Malay identity and had won every election until 2018 when it became bogged down in irredeemable corruption. UMNO has well and truly lost that position, with other alternatives offering an almost identical Malay nationalism clone including the rural Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), led by Abdul Hadi Awang, and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. The conjecture is that Khairy and his departing allies could join Muhyiddin’s party, which would impart additional legitimacy to the coalition but would cost him the personal non-Malay support he has attempted to cultivate as a cross-cultural figure.

Zahid’s antics in suspending elections have destroyed any semblance of party support he had left. He purged most of the leaders who opposed him at great cost during the last general election, including replacing the Perlis warlord Shahidan Kassim in the election line-up, which cost UMNO the whole state.

UMNO only won 26 seats in the last general election, its worst performance in its 77-year history. The aura of Zahid’s corruption, in which he faces 47 counts of money laundering and criminal breach of trust for allegedly looting RM 31 million belonging to the Yayasan Akalbudi charity foundation he started, cost UMNO dearly. In addition, the party’s kingmaker and bagman, former prime minister Najib Razak, has already been jailed for 12 years for corruption. A so-called “court cluster” of other top UMNO figures face court action for corruption. Immediately after the last general election, there were calls for Zahid’s resignation, which he forestalled by stitching up a pseudo-unity government with Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, which won him back popularity and a reputation as Anwar’s indispensable man.

Nonetheless, Zahid’s suppression of opposition within the party has turned him back into a major liability. With five state elections due over the next few months, some close to the Anwar administration believe that even Selangor may be in danger of going to Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition. Many Pakatan Harapan MPs are worried about holding onto their seats. Their relationship to a Zahid-led UMNO, with its baggage, is a disturbing liability.

Anwar’s Dilemma

A very well-placed source said that Anwar may be willing to dump Zahid as deputy prime minister despite the latter’s integral role in building the political architecture that put Anwar’s coalition in power following November. Many lawyers around Kuala Lumpur believe Zahid won’t be as lucky this time around. He is facing 47 charges of criminal breach of trust for allegedly looting RM31 million belonging to the Yayasan Akalbudi charity foundation, which he founded.

Anwar is under immense pressure to interfere with the case, which so far he appears to have resisted despite a suspicious delay in Zahid’s case until May. Aides say he is determined to not use his political clout to obstruct the trial, and he has the backing of Zahid’s opponents within UMNO, especially MPs who have offered to support Anwar as prime minister for this term of parliament. That would put pressure on Zahid to resign as party chief, to most likely be replaced by Mohamad Hasan, known as Tok Mat, his wingman.

Zahid’s sacking of Khairy Jamaluddin has turned Khairy into a hero although he has enemies in the party, while Nor Omar’s sacking has turned much of Selangor’s UMNO party organization against Zahid. Hishammuddin’s electoral stature has also been enhanced by Zahid’s suspension. This may all backfire on Zahid.

The decision to replace Zahid would be popular with voters and allow those opposing him to make some real party reforms, which Khairy had been attempting. If done before state elections due by September, such a move could bolster Pakatan Harapan and UMNO’s electoral chances.

The next move is now up to Anwar, who owes Zahid a great debt, not only for the role Zahid played in engineering the current ruling coalition. But although the two go back a long way, maintaining loyalty to Zahid at this point could cost Anwar’s government dearly, as the situation in Selangor, the country’s most populous state, shows.

The future of UMNO is now in Anwar’s hands. Anwar can let UMNO implode and accept the current UMNO MPs into Pakatan Harapan, or allow the rekindling of a new UMNO.