Analysts: Umno needs party polls to settle internal factions within party, Melaka victory merely plastered over cracks

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Political analysts say Umno should prioritise holding party elections in order to ‘steady the ship’. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Political analysts say Umno should prioritise holding party elections in order to ‘steady the ship’. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 27 — Political analysts say Umno should prioritise holding party elections in order to “steady the ship” as its recent victory in the Melaka state election merely plastered over cracks within the party.

As two or more factions have emerged over the last two years, political observers say that power within Umno has to be consolidated as soon as possible as the country heads towards the next general election (GE15).

That, or the party risks its squabbles splitting the party further.

“Umno needs to resolve its faction issues deliberately. Party election in Umno has to be held before GE15; if not, they face legal charges,” said political analyst and Associate Professor Kartini Aboo Talib.

Kartini said Umno is of course no stranger to internal rivalries with the likes of Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah leaving to form the splinter Semangat 46 group back in 1988, current Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim leaving to form PKR, and even former prime ministers Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who left to form Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).

“Umno is mature enough to resolve this faction among them, and one can decide to stay or leave,” Kartini told Malay Mail.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Professor Azmi Hassan echoed Kartini, saying it might be an easy victory for party president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi should party elections be held now following the party’s strong showing in Melaka.

Azmi said the main factions are those aligned to Zahid — including Datuk Seri Najib Razak and deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan — and those against or not in full support of the president.

Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) speaks to reporters during the press conference at the 2020 Umno annual general meeting in Kuala Lumpur March 28, 2021. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) speaks to reporters during the press conference at the 2020 Umno annual general meeting in Kuala Lumpur March 28, 2021. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

The Zahid faction is popularly referred to as the Court Cluster as the party president and several of his supporters like Najib are currently embroiled in several high profile court cases.

The other faction consists of Umno leaders who are within Umno vice president and current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet, and includes Communications and Multimedia Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

However, exact allegiances to either faction remain unclear.

“I don’t think anybody in Umno can challenge Zahid if a party election is held now,” Azmi told Malay Mail, adding that Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, also known as Tok Mat, is the only credible challenger against Zahid right now.

“Khairy does not have the particular clout compared to Zahid, so I think even though Khairy has performed very well as a federal minister, it is a totally different thing when we are talking about Umno’s internal elections,” he said, referring to Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said Zahid could possibly call for party elections on the tailwind of the Melaka polls.

He will very likely be re-elected as president and have the authority to sign GE candidates’ Letter of Commission (LOC) as the head of a party.

But Oh said there is also an equal chance of Umno delaying their internal elections to ensure Zahid leads the party into nationwide polls.

“Ideally for Zahid it (GE) should be held before his term as president expires so he can still sign the Surat Watikah,” he said using the Malay term for the LOC.

Oh said he sees support for Umno still at formidable levels, sufficient enough to persuade Zahid to push for GE, despite the clear splits within the party.

“Even if there is intense infighting at the federal level between Zahid and anti-Zahid factions, I think the support for Umno among the Malays will still be very, very formidable, so formidable that it would still carry them to quite a tremendous victory.

“Certainly better than their performance in the 2018 elections,” he said.

On the other hand, Azmi warned of Umno being overconfident in pushing for a GE, saying the recent Melaka polls should not be used as a yardstick to measure their nationwide support, given the low voter turnout and differing demographics.

“Melaka and the whole of Malaysia are totally different, and it is best for Umno to hold their party elections as soon as possible because those from Zahid’s camp, I think they are in a better standing right now,” he said.

How did a divided party lead BN to victory?

For Azmi, Umno’s internal issues and factions have largely remained contained, with hierarchy clearly followed, with them being the lesser of two evils when compared to the issues bogging down the Pakatan Harapan coalition.

He disagreed with the suggestion that voters had simply crossed the familiar Barisan Nasional logo at the polls without considering the party’s stability, saying the issues faced by Umno are just not as serious as the Opposition’s.

“Compared to PH’s squabbles they are more severe... for example, PH cannot name their prime minister-designate, so I would not say the voters don’t care much.

“This is because of the type of problems (Umno has), and voters see it as not affecting whoever will govern the Melaka state government,” he said.

As for Oh and Kartini, they both felt one of the main reasons for Umno and BN’s victory was simply down to PH’s being a weak alternative.

Oh said he sees it as the conservative Malays who are adamant against voting for the liberal parties under PH, while Kartini said PH’s less than impressive track record in Melaka and the shift in youth voters’ sentiments worked to BN’s advantage.

“A survey result conducted by Strata Analytica revealed that PH’s support was reduced by 35 per cent among youth groups aged 35 and below, and more than 50 per cent of youths voted for BN or Perikatan Nasional.

“For Umno, the memory, the empirical contribution of BN to Melaka as a tourist destination through the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture remains popular among Melaka voters,” Kartini asserted.

An Umno-led BN recently won the Melaka state elections in a landslide victory, winning 21 out of the 28 seats contested, effectively forming a two-thirds majority required to pass legislation.

PH on the other hand came out as the biggest losers of the polls, winning only five seats, with none from Anwar’s PKR, while seeing their vote share reduce by over 90,000 votes compared to what they received in the 2018 polls.

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