Post-election notes 2: Can UMNO save itself?

Dennis Ignatius

For UMNO, once the nation’s hegemon, the August 12 state elections were another humiliating affair. It failed to win even a single seat in Kedah or Terengganu, won just 1 of the 31 seats it contested in Kelantan, 2 out of 12 in Selangor and 2 out of 6 in Penang. It was only able to hold its own in Negeri Sembilan where it won 14 seats. Overall, it won just 19 of the 108 seats it contested.

The party’s dismal performance surprised no one (except perhaps its own leaders) given that the party has been on a downward spiral for many years – going from 109 seats in parliament in 2004 to a mere 26 seats in 2022.

Party president Zahid Hamidi is his party’s biggest albatross – an unpopular and tainted leader willing to drag down his party in the hope of leveraging his position to escape multiple charges of corruption and abuse of power.

In a desperate attempt to save himself, he did the unthinkable when he led his party into an alliance with Pakatan Harapan which included the DAP, long considered the devil incarnate by the UMNO base. While it might have been good for Zahid, ordinary members found it impossible to digest. Voting results suggest that a significant number of UMNO supporters either stayed home or voted for other Malay-Muslim parties in protest.

In a way, UMNO is simply reaping what it has sown. For decades, UMNO took every opportunity to demonize the DAP as anti-Malay, anti-Islam, anti-royalty and anti-everything else that is of any importance to Malay-Muslims. Now it has become a victim of its own propaganda.

In the wake of its disastrous performance, the party is in disarray. Demands for Zahid to step down are growing. It is unlikely, however, that Zahid will go quietly into the night without a guarantee that his legal problems will be resolved. Rumours abound that just such a deal is being worked out.

The other big problem is the so-called “DAP issue”. While DAP leaders like Nga Kor Ming are understandably delighted to have UMNO at their side – even cooing that “the DAP’s exceptional showing in the just-concluded state elections shows that the Malay electorate has accepted the party”[1] – the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

The reality is that in today’s extremely polarized environment, the Chinese-dominated DAP is a liability to any Malay-Muslim party. UMNO’s embrace of the DAP was in fact the last straw that broke the camel’s back for the party.

As UMNO supreme council member Isham Jalil asked, what’s the point of “winning 500 votes from the DAP but losing 5,000 grassroots votes?”[2] In Terengganu, grassroots leaders blamed the alliance with the DAP as one of the main reasons why the party failed to gain even a single seat in the state assembly. “They feel like they are being forced to compromise the dignity of the Malays when they have to accept DAP,” said one state leader.[3]

Even PKR is distrusted by many in the Malay heartland for the same reason, something that Anwar himself admitted following PKR’s setback in the 2021 Melaka state polls. But Anwar is in no position to complain – he won’t survive as prime minister without the DAP.

What all this tells us is that a plurality of Malay-Muslim voters want an Islamic state run by Malay-Muslims primarily for the benefit of Malay-Muslims. Any Malay-Muslim political party that wants to win power, therefore, has to take this political reality into account.

Of course, it is a sad commentary about the way our nation has evolved but that’s what happens after decades of incessant and unchecked racial and religious polemic. Lim Kit Siang can dream about silver linings[4] but in the Malay heartland the dream is now all about a Malay-Muslim state.

Whatever it is, UMNO’s future is bleak. Replacing Zahid might help but beyond that UMNO has no good options. It can go hat in hand to PN and beg for a junior role but that would be the kiss of death for UMNO. Staying on in the unity government alongside the DAP is also a poor option given that the UMNO base continues to reject the idea of working with the DAP.

Alternatively, it can try to position itself as a second Malay opposition party but it will be an uphill battle to prise the Malay-Muslim vote from PAS.

Successive UMNO leaders – Anwar included – exploited race and religion to further their political ambitions; the chickens are now coming home to roost. Unless something dramatic happens, UMNO is likely to go the way of MCA and MIC.