It was all sweetness and light at the recent general assembly of the United Malays National Organisation. But there is more than meets the eye.
Fresh from two successful state elections in Melaka and Johor, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has certainly earned the right to bask in its own glory. On the surface at the least, the party ranks appear to be united, despite simmering tensions between Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO president who does not hold a Cabinet position, and Ismail Sabri, the prime minister and UMNO vice-president.
In his opening address at the UMNO assembly last week, Zahid was all sweetness and light towards Ismail. ‘Let me and the deputy president take care of the party, and prime minister Ismail Sabri runs the government!’ said Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in his address at the UMNO general assembly. To underscore the closed ranks, Zahid, UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan and Ismail presented a plum photo opportunity at the closing ceremony of the assembly, exchanging handshakes in front of 5,500 delegates. It was also announced that the party consensus is that the UMNO election, which must be held before the end of 2022, would be held after general elections (which are only due in the middle of 2023).
Beneath all the smiles and handshakes, however, there are deeper undercurrents. The consensus puts Ismail between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the prime minister risks being disrespectful towards the party hierarchy if he delays the general election (GE). On the other hand, a snap GE will see him betraying the MPs from other parties who had backed him for the top job.
By agreeing to hold the UMNO polls after the GE, Zahid has also effectively cornered Ismail. At the UMNO assembly, Zahid disclosed that that Mohamad Hasan, Ismail, the two other vice-presidents and himself — the five top UMNO leaders — are constantly in discussions about the party’s welfare. This can be deciphered as a reminder to Ismail that there are two seniors above him in the party hierarchy. In the past, Malaysian prime ministers were concurrently UMNO presidents. Zahid does not hold any position in the Cabinet. But given that Zahid will be the UMNO president when the GE is called, he will appoint the UMNO divisional chiefs, who in turn decide on the candidates for election. If the UMNO election is held before the GE, Ismail can theoretically mount a challenge to Zahid’s presidency to claim his rightful place, reviving the tradition of the UMNO president being the prime minister. With the decision to delay party polls, this option has now been taken away.
If there are still doubts about the animosity between Zahid and Ismail, one only need to observe the slight that the former inflicted on the latter recently. At the celebrations over UMNO’s win in Johor, Zahid paid more than necessary tribute to Najib — a former PM — than Ismail for the party’s victory.
The consensus puts Ismail between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the prime minister risks being disrespectful towards the party hierarchy if he delays the general election (GE). On the other hand, a snap GE will see him betraying the MPs from other parties who had backed him for the top job.
Ismail can afford to delay the GE despite only having a 2-seat majority in parliament. But acceding to his party’s request for a ‘blitzkrieg’ GE would be tantamount to betraying the MPs that supported him, majority of them are not from UMNO. Unlike his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin, whose 17-month old government fell in August 2021 after 14 UMNO MPs including Zahid withdrew their support, Ismail is backed by Perikatan Nasional MPs from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Moreover, the MoU signed between his government and Pakatan Harapan ensures that the opposition will either support or abstain the government’s confidence and supply bills, in return for several promised reforms such as the tabling of anti-party hopping laws, enforcing the lowering of voting age to 18, and limiting the prime minister’s term to ten years, among others. The MoU guarantees that no election will be held before 31 July 2022.
Despite the show of unity during the general assembly, the internal bickering is far from settled. The UMNO youth wings (Putera and Puteri) supported Zahid for the divisive party election to be held after the general election. But there are also UMNO leaders who disagreed, and these sentiments were raised outside the assembly. Minister of Communications and Multimedia Anuar Musa said that UMNO must not be in a hurry to call for a general election, and has to understand ground sentiments first. Former minister Nazri Aziz was even more blatant in his criticisms, calling those who called for early GE ‘powerless opportunists’. He said that there are terms in the memorandum with the opposition that have not been fulfilled, such as the anti-party hopping law.
The assembly may have put Ismail’s back to the wall. But this does not prevent him from launching further maneuvers. The last-minute replacement of the candidate for Johor chief minister recently shows that the party remains disunited. In addition, key UMNO ministers Khairy Jamaluddin, Hishammuddin Hussein, and Anuar Musa kept a low profile throughout the assembly. From the non-Zahid camp, only Anuar openly endorsed the president’s speech as ‘potentially bringing party harmony’, which shows Zahid does not enjoy the full support of the current crop of UMNO MPs. To illustrate further that UMNO does not have full backing from its partners, the ruling coalition in Sabah GRS (Gabungan Rakyat Sabah) registered itself as a coalition without UMNO but includes Bersatu. Ismail also admitted that the election call must have the endorsement of the other UMNO partners in Barisan Nasional. Moreover, UMNO may still be forced to have its party polls before the election if the Registrar of Societies (RoS) says so. The RoS is under the command of Minister of Home Affairs Hamzah Zainuddin, a rival Bersatu MP. Finally, as prime minister, it is Ismail and not Zahid that can advise the Agong (Malaysian King) to dissolve parliament, a requirement which Zahid concedes.
It is now up to Ismail to wiggle his way out of the the cracks imposed by his UMNO rivals. Put simply, he can choose his party superiors’ advice, or the MPs — UMNO and non-UMNO — who gave him the coveted prize as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister. The fact remains that he can only choose one over the other.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.