Can Umno’s hegemony be broken?

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Graphic: freemalaysiatoday.com

Umno’s current hegemony can be said to be challenged from four fronts: by the Pakatan Harapan through PKR and Amanah, by the new Malay party and by Pas, observes Johan Saravanamuttu.

My last reflection was on forging political alliances in a time of extreme political impasse such as we are encountering today. I will continue in this vein in this newsletter.

The Citizen’s Declaration initiated by Mahathir Mohamad, which brought together the strangest of political bedfellows, seemed like a good idea in March.

Four months on, the declaration has become almost passé although, more positively speaking, it has perhaps succeeded in further galvanising new political relationships in the anti-Najib alliances. Its momentum has carried Mahathir and his supporters to set up a new political party, which would collaborate with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) to take on Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional (BN) in the next general election (GE14).

The registering of a new exclusively Malay/bumiputera party, to be headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, is not without its criticism. But it would be naive to expect Malaysian politics to not be driven by ethnic motives.

Any student of Malaysian politics will know that Umno (the first exclusive Malay party) is pivotal to the dominance of BN in the six decades of Malaysia’s electoral authoritarian regime. If truth be told, Umno’s hegemony within the BN has never been broken, while various other BN parties have come and gone, save for perhaps the MCA and the MIC, which have remained as perennial junior partners to Umno.

Even in the past ruptures that Umno has encountered – such as after the 13 May 1969 riots, the Team A-Team B tussle of the mid-1980s and the party’s deregistration, the breakaway of the Anwar faction and the ensuing reformasi movement of the late 1990s – the Umno core ultimately close ranks to overcome these internal crises and continued to dominate the BN and Malaysian politics till today.

Umno has even become the hegemonic party in Sabah since the 1990s and, despite its absence in Sarawak, the Umno president has always had oversight over the ruling Sarawak coalitions.

Najib unshakeable?

So, this brings us to the present Umno crisis, arguably its most serious since Anwar’s sacking in 1998. Like in 1998, a deputy president has been sacked, but this time the sackings include a vice president and a menteri besar. Also, a past president in the guise of Malaysia’s longest serving premier has launched a protracted campaign to unseat its incumbent.

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Furthermore, various court actions have been lodged against the Umno president’s alleged siphoning of funds from 1MDB into his personal bank account. And now, the US Department of Justice, no less, has also taken a US$1bn forfeiture action against 1MDB in its single largest kleptocrcacy case to date.

But semingly, Najib remains unshakeable in spite of various international civil actions and the domestic manoeuvres of his (ex) party detractors and despite being the person under whose ultimate oversight the country’s biggest financial scandal has taken place.

It would appear that as long as Najib does not relinquish the Umno presidency, which automatically brings with it the premiership of Malaysia, he cannot be forced to step down from his perch. In short, the only apparent way to depose Malaysia’s prime minister would be to defeat Umno and hence the BN in the next general election unless, by some chance, Umno self-destructs before then.

In a recent international conference I attended, an eminent professor of political science (William Case) considered why the 1MDB financial scandal could not prove to be the tipping point of Najib’s fall from power.

His analysis was that Najib’s grip of Umno remains the key to his incumbency, adding that he now has almost unchallenged control of key government institutions such the attorney general’s chambers, the police, the central bank and the anti-graft agency (MACC). It is hard to disagree with this analysis by Case up to this point of time.

But did the good professor perhaps not consider fully the potential ramifications of Najib’s egregious malfeasance and misdeamour, particularly with respect to an impending general election?

Najib has already alienated important factions of Umno by dismising their leaders and caused the further splintering of the party, which could only weaken it in a general election. Factional Umno politics is bound to affect the crucial states of Johor, Kedah and Sabah. The loss to the government of Sabah’s former Umno vice president Shafie Apdal clearly presages a much more divided BN in that state.

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Umno’s grip dented

Moreover, an effective opposition alliance with the new Umno spinter party could prove significant in denting Umno’s hegemonic grip on rural and semi-rural seats in those states.

While Pas has left the opposition coalition, it has not indicated that it would join the BN and may want to keep its own hegemonic control of Kelantan. It may also be eying Terangganu, which now evinces fissiparous Umno politics.

Umno’s current hegemony can be said to be challenged from four fronts: by the Pakatan Harapan through PKR and Amanah, by the new Malay party and by Pas. I do not recall a time when Umno faced such multiple challenges and such a major split of the Malay vote. In short, the outcome of GE 14 remains highly problematic for Umno and the BN.

Admittedly, the Sarawak state election landside victory on 7 May was a major boon to the ruling coalition and so too, the twin by-election wins on 19 June. But there are still many more months for a ragged Opposition to forge a potential winning coalition in a general election.

The scuttling of the proposed Penang snap election spurred by the corruption charge foisted on its chief minister could serve to consolidate the PH as it regroups more cohesively for GE14

Given the 1MDB scandal, all eyes will be on Najib’s electoral funding, and he cannot afford to be as cavalier as he was before in the use of money. It’s unlikely that he would have the gumption and funds to spend as much as he did the last time — RM1.5bn!

Other challenges to Umno’s grip

There are two or three more factors that would nibble at Umno’s hegemony outside of party politics. I speak of the unmistakeable disaffection of senior civil servants (past and present) with Najib’s financial excesses and his lack of political will to check the extremist tendencies of Islamic forces, even within his own party.

Not only did he lose an erstwhile trusted Umno moderate, Saifuddin Abdullah, to the PKR, but the Group of 25, comprising senior former Malay civil servants, has emerged to show deep annoyance with his stances on many current issues.

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Could there also be a large section of dormant civil servants and military personnel who are now apprised of the unacceptable limits and unprecendented corruption of the Najib regime?

In 2013, Husam Musa of Pas (now in Amanah) was able to capture some 30 per cent of the popular votes in Putrajaya, the heart of the Malay-bumiputera bureaucracy. Even then there was already a high level of disaffectation of civil servants with the Najib regime and constant whisperings about the inordinate indulgences of his wife Rosmah Mansor.

In GE13, despite losing the popular vote, Umno and the BN essentially pulled through in Felda seats and other rural and semi-rural areas of East Malaysia. Hardly anyone would dispute that Najib and Umno as a party has lost the support of the urban Malays. How much of a factor could this be in the coming election?

Let us also not devalue the Malaysian Parliament with its 80-odd opposition members (87 with Pas) who will still be a torn in the side of Umno and will continue to shame its partner parties such as Gerakan, the MCA, Upko and the PBS for remaining in the embrace of a highly discredited government which flouts their party principles.

Finally, civil society forces will obviously continue to campaign against Najib’s lack of accountablity and to clamour for his resignation.

To be sure, the Bersih 5 rally, if held, will not force Najib’s hand. But a massive civil action of this sort should have the salutary effects of further aerating the Najib’s government’s misdemeanours, exposing its malfeasance and rallying new supporters to the cause of a potential BN defeat in GE14.

There is one caveat: the above analysis is based on the assumption that Najib under extreme pressure does not invoke force majeuer through the newly minted National Security Council Act to suspend elections in selected zones or even altogether, should he judge that Malaysia’s ‘national security’ is under threat.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 August 2016

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