Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (C) and opposition member of parliament Anwar Ibrahim (centre L) address the media as they protest the closure of parliament in Kuala Lumpur on 2 August 2021. (Photo: Arif KARTONO / AFP)

The Descent of UMNO

Published

Malaysia’s Umno has continued on its downward slide. In the culmination, this might well prove to be the revenge of Reformasi that begun as a popular revolt against the party more than two decades ago.

During the last week of July 2021, Malaysia was gripped by a constitutional crisis that pitted the King and Parliament against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government. The King had directed Muhyiddin to reconvene Parliament, which had been suspended for over half a year, to debate and vote on the revocation of six ordinances passed during a state of emergency.

It was soon evident that Muhyiddin’s government had misleadingly claimed that the emergency had been revoked by a Cabinet decision that had not been submitted for prior royal review and assent. The King rebuked Muhyiddin and his de facto Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan for breaching constitutional protocol and insisted that Parliament be swiftly reconvened. Should that happen, the PN’s long suspected lack of a majority might finally be exposed. 

To compound Muhyiddin’s problems, his biggest partner in PN, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has withdrawn its support for PN. This has effectively undercut any PN claim of a majority in Parliament. The UMNO move has stoked demands in and out of Parliament for Muhyiddin’s resignation and an end to the PN government.

At first glance, UMNO’s rebuff of PN has several arguable points. It reaffirmed UMNO’s fealty to royalty, but that was being dutiful rather than something new. It declared the party’s fidelity to parliamentary propriety — but this is quite laughable for a party that treated Parliament cavalierly during its days of domination. 

Maybe it was UMNO’s indignation at playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). This is understandable, for most Bersatu Members of Parliament (MPs) had defected from UMNO before or after the 2018 general election. 

Or perhaps it was prophecy fulfilled. In September 2020, UMNO veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah sneered that PN would fall if a few MPs from the ‘python’ that was UMNO abandoned the puny snake or common bronzeback (ular lidi) that was Bersatu. If there was pride in belittling Bersatu so, it was injured pride that came after a fall. In flaunting its strength vis-à-vis PN, UMNO might have revealed how far it had tumbled from its one-time status as political hegemon.

As a consequence of their Supreme Council’s decision to leave PN, UMNO’s 38 MPs are split three ways. 

Those in UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s cluster want to bring down Muhyiddin and PN. One of them, an UMNO Vice-President, did not want his party to be ‘shackled with the lust for power and position’.

Still, those in Muhyiddin’s Cabinet largely prefer the status quo. One minister was gratified that UMNO had ‘got more (ministerial and official posts) than we deserved’. From where he asked, would his Supreme Council find 90 more parliamentary seats to rule without PN? A deputy minister was loath to leave PN because ‘to face the [next] elections as the Opposition’ would be a ‘new experience, and we are afraid to lose.’

The ‘undeclared’ UMNO MPs face a wrenching choice: spurn their Supreme Council or forfeit the comforts of incumbency. By unconfirmed counts, most of them lean towards PN.

Perhaps Zahid has belatedly realized that his plan to exit from PN could spur an exodus of MPs from UMNO instead. He berates the ‘frogs’ – local parlance for party-hoppers – fleeing from the ranks of his ‘python’. 

No one knows how the Constitutional crisis will end. This bout of bitter fighting is chaotic political realignment conducted beyond popular oversight.

If enough UMNO MPs defy the party line, one of two things could result. They could mount a coup to eject Zahid and his cluster from the party leadership or the party altogether. Or the rebels could simply join Bersatu. Both scenarios are fraught with complications. Yet either of them will extend UMNO’s long-running trajectory of dismemberment that went through feuds, expulsions and defections. 

The second scenario would complete what Dr Mahathir Mohamad began after the 2018 general election. He wanted to disable UMNO as a political force by enticing its ‘untainted’ MPs to bolster Bersatu’s strength. He schemed to transfer, as it were, an outmoded Malay nationalist mission from a defeated party to a fledgling one.

At a critical moment in February 2020, when Mahathir refused to work with UMNO as a party, a Muhyiddin-led Bersatu faction dumped Mahathir and formed PN with UMNO’s support. As so often happens when politics is ruled by plots and intrigues, what goes around comes around. 

No one knows how the Constitutional crisis will end. This bout of bitter fighting is a chaotic political realignment conducted beyond popular oversight. Its outcome might damage PN and UMNO. Speculative estimates without an open vote in Parliament suggest that Muhyiddin is not backed by a majority of MPs. But this might come at a cost — UMNO might lose up to two-thirds of its MPs. 

Should this come to pass, it would confirm that UMNO cannot dictate the flow of national politics as before. Would it follow that UMNO has begun a descent into a minor political player? The answer depends on whether UMNO can quickly find inspired leadership and an impetus for internal reform. The former factor might rally cohesion and common purpose above calculating self-interest. The latter could correct the party’s structural and ideational flaws. 

Both factors are probably absent given that UMNO is preoccupied with self-isolating tactical moves in this latest round of parlous Malay politics. And if UMNO slides further, history might look upon its descent as the revenge of Reformasi that began with a popular revolt against the party twenty-three years ago.

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