Election Explainer: Can Malaysia’s Umno survive its civil war and win GE15? 

Photo: Umno President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (right)/Facebook
Photo: Umno President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (right)/Facebook

On November 19, Malaysians will go to the polls after several years of major political turbulence. Where else can you find a country where two respective governments have been toppled without an election in the space of three years? (Oh hello there, UK!)

In this article, we would like to bring you up to speed on the internal conflicts happening in one political party and perhaps give some insight into how their strife could affect their chances of winning the election. 

You have most likely heard about Najib Abdul Razak and the 1MDB scandal, and how he stole billions from the Malaysian people. Well yeah, this is about the political party he’s from, Umno. 

Why is Umno important in this story? 

During the 2018 general election, most Malaysians voted against them (in large part due to the IMDB scandal), bringing their 60-year-old regime crashing down. So yeah, as you might have guessed, they were not too happy about that, which is why Umno leaders are so desperate to win this election, to gain back the undefeatable power they once held. 

Umno leads a coalition called Barisan Nasional (BN) which, in the spirit of Malaysia’s multiracialism, includes the race-based Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress. 

BN performed so poorly in the 2018 general election that Umno, its superstar component party, won only 54 out of the available 222 parliamentary seats. 

The joy many Malaysians felt over bringing down BN and Umno didn’t last very long though (that’s what she said!). 

During its 22 months in power, the winning Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition struggled with internal disagreement over key issues, particularly over the timeline of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s transfer of power over to PH’s chairman Anwar Ibrahim. 

Under the PH coalition at the time, there were several political parties namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), Bersatu and Amanah. 

However, the PH government crumbled when it lost majority support in Parliament after the Bersatu party, and a handful of PKR leaders decided to pull support from the coalition, which started an unprecedented political crisis in the country

Mahathir resigned as prime minister soon after and was replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin, who ended up heading the Perikatan Nasional government comprised mainly of Bersatu, Umno, and PAS. 

Fast forward to today: Umno is poised to regain its position at the top of Malaysia‘s political pack and its leadership will do almost anything to make sure that happens. 

Why, you ask?

It may have to do with the fact that many Umno leaders are facing corruption charges following their defeat in the 2018 election. One notable example is party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is the main driving force behind why the polls are being called now amid the flood season (GE15 theoretically could have been held as late as 2023). 

Zahid is facing 47 charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering over the use of funds from a charity foundation linked to him. Many suspect the 69-year-old desperately pushed for holding the general election as soon as possible in hopes that the charges against him would be dropped if Umno wins. 

On Tuesday (Nov. 1), Zahid announced a list of 160 candidates who will run in the peninsula during GE15. He is included on that list, defending his Bagan Datuk seat in Perak, where he has been a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1995. 

In explaining the coalition’s roster of candidates, BN noted that 85% of the nominees have higher education-level academic credentials. (Well, we would hope so. We wouldn’t want another minister mistaking the Spanish Flu with Spanish Fly on live television.) 

However, it seems there was another major factor in which candidates were chosen. The roster confirmed rumors that numerous well-known incumbent MPs would not be defending their seats simply because they appear to be more aligned with interim prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an Umno vice-president, rather than Zahid.

Some are of the view that Zahid will be the death of Umno due to his corruption cases, but Zahid is fighting back tooth and nail by removing those who are vocal against his leadership (he apparently didn’t get the “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” memo). 

Seven of the 20 Umno members who had previously served in ministerial and deputy ministerial capacities in Ismail Sabri’s cabinet have been dropped as candidates for the upcoming election.

To add to this spicy Malay soap opera, it was rumoured that candidates were required to sign a loyalty document and bend the knee (not literally) to Zahid as supreme leader of the party and as prime minister if Umno wins the election. 

Coconuts have seen a copy of this supposed letter and, although Zahid has denied the existence of such an agreement, Umno Supreme Council Member Zahidi Zainul Abidin confirmed the existence of statutory declarations (SDs) given to candidates. However, Zahidi Zainul said he did not know the actual contents of the letter. 

This is interesting because, just the other day, Zahid stated that the party would support the continued leadership of Ismail Sabri as PM if Umno wins. He claimed the decision was “final”, although it’s starting to feel more like a Final Destination film… 

So with all the internal conflicts going on within Umno, how could this impact them in the upcoming polls?

Political analyst Tunku Mohar Tunku Mohd Mokhtar told Coconuts the announced list of candidates, filled with Zahid loyalists, had left BN’s grassroots supporters grumbling, which could hurt them at the polls.

“BN, or at least the faction aligned with Zahid, thinks that this is the best time for it to call for an election and to have a better chance at winning it.”

“However, it has not been smooth sailing. The announcement of candidates frustrated two groups: those who wanted to contest but were not nominated, and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).” 

MIC’s decision to stay away from the Barisan Nasional (BN) gathering to announce the candidates has raised more than eyebrows as it is considered a direct challenge to Zahid.

BN’s candidates in the peninsula comprise 103 from UMNO, 43 from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and 10 from the MIC. The list also includes four candidates from parties considered to be Friends of BN.

With all the internal conflicts going on in BN, Professor Tunku Mohar said the only silver lining for BN is that the opposition is also fractured. 

“BN can still have a chance at winning if it can capitalise on the split votes.”

“Based on various polls, most notably Ilham Centre, BN/UMNO still commands Malay support, but discontent in the grassroots may negatively affect its chances of winning this election. It depends now on its ability to close its ranks and oil its machinery to mobilize its supporters to go out and vote in the election,” he said. 

Preliminary studies by Ilham Centre, O2 Research, and Huayan Policy Institute Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies found that BN and PH will both receive support from early voters in the 15th general election.

Ilham Centre’s survey found that, although BN leads the poll with 35% followed by PH (18%), PN (12%), and other parties (14%), there is still a significant number of fence-sitters who remain undecided (21%). 

“The competition is still widely open between parties to explore and attract their support. The votes of this group have the potential to influence the outcome of GE15,” the Ilham Centre said of its survey results.

According to their report, 35% of 1,622 respondents said they would choose BN if the 15th general election was held now. The results indicate that BN remains the preferred choice for many Malays (46%) and Indians (35%), while 38% of Chinese chose PH.

A total of 36% of voters also chose BN and Umno as the popular and people-friendly political coalition (31.8%) compared to PH (14%).

BN, which has existed for five decades, is still able to retain support due to its perceived stability compared to newer coalitions such as PH. 

Despite its leaders being mired in corruption charges, BN has been able to attract voters through its pro-development track record, nominal embracing of multiculturalism and good chemistry between its component parties

According to the Election Commission, a total of 21,173,638 individuals are eligible to vote in GE15. 

Similar findings were found in O2 Research Malaysia’s study “Apa Yang Rakyat Mahu?” (What do the people want?).

A total of 57% of its respondents said they have made up their minds on which party to vote for while 28% said they are leaning towards a particular party but are still open to changing their decision and voting for another party. The remaining 15% of its respondents are undecided.

“Around two-fifths of voters (8.4 million) still haven’t finalised their party of choice for GE15 and on-the-fence votes will affect the outcome of the election,” said the two research firms.

This means, with just around two weeks left before the Nov 19 polls, the question of who will lead Malaysia’s government is still very much up in the air. It may come down to which coalition can keep it together until then.

RELATED: Malaysia’s 15th General Election to be held on November 19 | Coconuts

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