UMNO’s Constitutional Amendment: A Done Deal?
Pending approval from the government, UMNO’s Supreme Council can now delay elections for up to 18 months from a full three-year term or 6 months after a general election — whichever is later. The rationale is that this would allow the party to overcome any internal divisions arising during the polls and focus its energies on the next general election.
Members of Malaysia’s largest political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have been busy bees of late. Following their Annual General Meeting in March, they convened again in mid-May for an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) at the Kuala Lumpur World Trade Centre. The 2,586 delegates present voted unanimously to amend the party’s constitution to allow its leaders greater flexibility in deciding when to hold internal polls.
According to the UMNO constitution, party elections must be held every three years. The last such event took place in June 2018, right after UMNO’s ouster from power. Consequently, the subsequent elections should have taken place in June last year. However, UMNO’s apex body, the Supreme Council, opted to delay party elections by 18 months to December of this year — a practice allowed by the constitution.
At the May EGM, UMNO Vice President Khaled Nordin tabled the proposed amendments, and Prime Minister and fellow UMNO Vice President Ismail Sabri seconded them. Following unanimous support from the delegates, the Supreme Council can now delay elections for up to 18 months from a full three-year term or 6 months after a general election — whichever is later. The rationale is that this would allow the party to overcome any internal divisions arising during the polls and focus its energies on the next general election.
This technical modification has far-reaching implications. Many UMNO members, not least the incumbent president Zahid Hamidi, want a general election to be held as soon as possible. They argue that recent victories in the Melaka and Johor state elections show that UMNO and its coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), are well-poised to attain a solid majority in parliament. A compelling victory would restore UMNO to its rightful place at the helm of government and unshackle it from its uneasy alliance with the Perikatan Nasional coalition which rallied behind the previous prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Zahid Hamidi and his ally, former prime minister Najib Razak, may be driven by more than a desire to secure a convincing majority for BN. The duo is facing copious court cases for corruption, money laundering, and criminal breach of trust. Najib Razak’s first set of charges pertaining to the ill-fated 1MDB subsidiary SRC has been decided in Malaysia’s High Court and Court of Appeal, and is slated to reach its incontestable conclusion at the Federal Court on August 26th. Processes pertaining to other aspects of the 1MDB fund are also well underway. Zahid’s legal travails are no less trivial and unseemly but are still only in their first stages. One could be forgiven for thinking that these UMNO leaders are hoping that a decisive general election victory would help resolve these legal ailments.
Given that the general election is not due for another 15 months and the last UMNO election seems a world away, Zahid has been accused of prioritising his own welfare over the party and potentially the nation. UMNO party veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah stated that the latest amendments should not be made for the good of only one or two people. Despite having left the party some seven years ago, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad freely shared his opinion on the matter, stating that in pushing to amend the constitution, UMNO leaders were not respecting it.
Ismail Sabri is […] in control of a vast administrative apparatus with sweeping powers that have — on occasion — been used to shape political outcomes.
What does the amendment portend for Ismail Sabri? At first blush, he is put in an invidious position. The amendment will substantially bolster Zahid’s position, as it means that he would remain as UMNO President — and BN Chairman — going into the next election. Of key import, Zahid would be responsible for selecting all BN candidates for parliament. This also means that Ismail Sabri cannot translate his prime ministership into a higher position in the party and he will have to cede to Zahid on UMNO issues. Ismail will need to rely on UMNO’s official assurance that he will be the party’s candidate for PM – which given the latest twist in Johor over its Menteri Besar — holds little water.
But Ismail Sabri is not without some leverage. He is in control of a vast administrative apparatus with sweeping powers that have — on occasion — been used to shape political outcomes. The latest constitutional amendment needs to be approved by the Registrar of Societies (RoS), a powerful organisation charged with approving the establishment and monitoring the governance of associations, guilds, and political parties.
Headed by a career civil servant, the RoS comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also oversees the police. At present, the Minister is Hamzah Zainuddin, who is not an UMNO party member, but rather a member of Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu. As with many Bersatu members, he is not in a rush to see UMNO return to unquestioned dominance. Of key interest, the RoS has no stipulated time frame to approve applications and does not need to give reasons for rejecting them. The application by youth-based MUDA for its registration as a political party took some 15 months, multiple appeals and a court case before it was finally approved in December 2021.
Aware of its significance, as Zahid Hamidi is himself a former Minister of Home Affairs, UMNO lodged its application two days after the EGM. There is a certain urgency; should it be rejected, UMNO will need to go ahead with its election before the end of the year. It would also be desirable for the decision to be approved before the denouements of Najib’s appeal to the Federal Court and Zahid’s first court case before the High Court, due in August and November, respectively.
Despite seconding the constitutional amendment at the EGM, what does Ismail Sabri say about this? Immediately following the meeting, he reminded people that the changes would need to be approved by the RoS. ‘It all depends on the procedure’ he stated, before adding that UMNO ‘would have to wait’. The RoS, then, may be exceptionally thorough in evaluating its latest application. The fate of the country’s oldest political party, and its direction of travel going into the next elections, might well depend on the decision of the country’s bureaucracy.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.