We are witnessing widening cracks within the main Malay political party, Umno, as the country heads into a general election, now looming on the horizon.
The fault line separates party leaders and members who support the present Perikatan Nasional government from those who want Umno to act independently, including cooperating with PKR and the DAP.
This is not the first time Umno has splintered into bitterly competing factions that ultimately led the party to reconstitute itself in the aftermath.
Umno founder Onn Jaafar left the party in 1951 after failing to open it up to other ethnic groups.
Lest we forget, Pas also broke away in the early 1950s.
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Then, after the May 13 race riots in 1969, Umno was taken over by its hardline faction, which promptly marginalised moderate party figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In 1987, Umno was again embroiled in internal crisis as Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah acrimoniously battled each other for the party presidency. Mahathir’s controversial win was challenged in court by the losing Umno faction, but before their case could reach the highest court, a string of top judges in the apex court were sacked or suspended. When the party was later declared illegal, Mahathir and his supporters set up Umno Baru while Razaleigh’s faction formed Semangat 46.
In 1998, Umno faced an internal crisis when its deputy president, Anwar Ibrahim, was unceremoniously sacked. This fragmented the party and sparked the Reformasi movement. Many long-time Umno supporters left the party in disgust and joined Pas and the newly formed PKR. Umno was weakened to the point that the then-Barisan Nasional government would have lost the 1999 general election if not for the solid support of the other ethnic groups.
In all these crises, Umno had always been in a dominant position, which allowed it to bounce back strongly. Semangat 46 was unable to dent Umno’s grip on the Malay electorate, while Pas remained a provincial party that did not threaten Umno at the national level.
Since 2018, however, Malay-Muslim politics has been divided three ways – Umno, Bersatu and Pas – as these parties compete for support from the same pool of Malay voters.
The irony of this three-way contest for Malay votes is that it started out as an alliance of “Malay-Islamic unity”, known as Muafakat Nasional, which vowed to defend Malay-Islamic supremacy against all threats, namely from the then-Pakatan Harapan government.
This Malay-Islamic unity proved to be a mere facade when these parties wrested power from PH in late February 2020 and then shared the spoils of the coup. Ethnic and religious concerns took a back seat as greed and power dominated the PN government.
‘Big brother’ Umno had to play second fiddle to ‘little brother’ Bersatu. This is what now animates the internal tensions within Umno, which were laid bare at its recent annual general meeting.
What happens now? It is doubtful that Umno will return to the PN fold in time to avoid multi-cornered contests in the looming general election. Umno has almost all the electoral advantages, and the party knows it. It has entrenched and well-oiled grassroots machinery, name recognition, party loyalty and a social cachet in the Malay heartlands.
Bersatu is a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ upstart that was swept to power through the 1MDB scandal and the 2018 political tsunami. The only electoral advantage it has is access to federal government coffers as a source of patronage. But will that be enough for the party?
Perhaps the 2018 general election result can provide us with some clues.
Bersatu contested in 52 parliamentary seats and won 13. This was an abysmal 25% win rate in an election that saw a three-way contest in most Malay-majority constituencies when BN-Umno was at its weakest.
By comparison, PKR contested in 71 seats and won 47 (a 66% win rate) while the DAP contested in 47 seats and won 42 (an 89% win rate).
Moreover, many of the Bersatu MPs who won their seats in 2018 like Mahathir, Mukhriz Mahathir, Syed Saddiq and Maszlee Malik left the party after the ill-fated Sheraton Move.
It was plainly clear that even when PH was riding high on the political tsunami in 2018, Bersatu remained the millstone that weighed down the coalition.
No wonder Bersatu is trying hard to entice Umno to remain with the PN government. Bersatu knows it will be wiped out in the next election, especially in multi-cornered contests.
But, let’s say, even if Umno agrees to stay with PN through the coming election, would the party in its right mind be willing to give up its massive electoral advantages for the sake of ‘Malay-Muslim unity’? Only a betting fool would say yes.
How will this Malay-Muslim dynamic bode for the future of politics in Malaysia? As things stand, Umno is most likely to win most of the seats in the Malay heartlands; Pas will remain the dominant force in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah; while Bersatu will be reduced to a footnote in history.
But Umno will need to form a majority coalition if it is to take over the federal government. The question now is which parties would be willing to govern jointly with Umno?
We are now hearing loud whispers of negotiations between PH and Umno, especially after the leaking of Umno president Zahid Hamdi and PH leader Anwar’s phone conversation. What happens if PH and Umno get into bed together? Will it become BN 2.0 with Umno as the dominant partner lording it over other component parties?
One thing’s for sure, the DAP is not the MCA and PKR is not the MIC. Both DAP and PKR can match Umno’s electoral strength and will not be easily emasculated like the MCA and the MIC.
Maybe a more programmatic and less ethno-centric BN 2.0 will emerge from this alliance of strange political bedfellows?
Germany, for instance, has been governed for 16 years by a trans-ideological federal coalition made up of conservatives and social democrats or better known as Große Koalition (Grand Coalition), led by its imperturbable Chancellor, Angela Merkel. It is a coalition that is largely programmatic and stable despite the stark ideological differences of its component parties, so much so it managed to steer the country out of the 2008 global financial crisis relatively unscathed.
Could this be the model of governance we can expect to see in Malaysia after the next general election? There’s only one way to find out.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
15 April 2021