KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 15 — The 2022 Umno General Assembly, held following a dismal performance in the 15th general election, was more sombre than the previous edition when the party had been celebrating back-to-back state election wins in Melaka and Johor.
Although the stalls and visitors both returned to the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur, they could not mask the sense and realisation that Umno is no longer a dominant party, but one that has been on steady decline since 2008.
Winning just 26 federal seats out of 145 the party members had contested last year, Umno is lucky to still be part of the federal government, now with their former adversaries in Pakatan Harapan.
The concern now would be in how the party is to restore itself, after being on the brink of collapse when its traditional Malay seats were almost all swept up by PAS and Bersatu of Perikatan Nasional.
Here are the three things we learnt about this year’s general assembly.
1. Zahid clings on to power
Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (center) speaks to the media at the press conference during the Umno's general assembly (PAU 2022) at World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur January 14, 2023. — Picture by Hari Anggara
The biggest development in this year’s Umno general assembly is the “no contest” motion the delegates approved to block any challenge against the president and deputy president in the upcoming party election.
Most believed the move was orchestrated by Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi or his faction, as another way for him and his deputy, Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, to cling on to their position despite criticism.
Zahid and Mohamad had led the party and their coalition, Barisan Nasional, to their worst ever election performance in GE15, in which they came in third behind PH and PN, winning just seven seats more than Gabungan Parti Sarawak that only contested in Sarawak.
Since before GE15, it was seen that Umno wanted a new leader in the top post, with Khairy Jamaluddin, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, and even former prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob thrown into the mix.
Khairy, the only outspoken one among the names, said the suggestion to prevent the Umno presidency from being contested was “madness”.
In a post on Instagram on Friday, Khairy said doing so would be detrimental to democracy.
“Stop this madness. I believe the president is a fighter and will not back down from facing a challenger.
“There should be a contest. Do not kill democracy in Umno,” he said.
However, other Umno leaders rejected this, saying that the move was to ensure unity for the party that was currently finding a way to stay relevant.
Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Ahmad Said defended the motion to bar contests for the party’s top positions in the next internal election as being in line with the party’s constitution.
Ahmad, who is also Terengganu Umno chief, said that the move to maintain the current leadership was important as six state elections will be held this year.
2. Unity government still needs selling
Umno still needs to explain to its grassroots why it decided to back the unity government with PKR and DAP, especially to its members who had spent years campaigning against the two political rivals.
As a start, the Umno leadership has launched a campaign to educate and inform members in Pahang and Perak over the states’ respective cooperation with PH, with Zahid himself taking a central role in a special briefing to delegates on Wednesday on the issue.
Mohamad’s speech on Wednesday set the tone by praising DAP while criticising PAS and Bersatu, which at least did not cause too much dissonance among delegates.
(L to R) Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob,Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan and Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are pictured during its general assembly at World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur January 13, 2023. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Some young leaders choose to see things positively, trying to be pragmatic about the whole thing.
Puteri Umno Perak chief Ruhaida Mohamad Yaakob said while there is no denying that there are still grassroots people who do not understand the cooperation of the unity government, like in Perak as well as Putrajaya, being part of the government will help Umno to stay relevant and give services to the people.
“We are giving this unity government the opportunity to serve the people and I am confident and believe that when the people see and evaluate the work done by this unity government, those under them will understand why the cooperation exists, especially for Umno itself,” she said.
3. More challenges lie ahead
Umno must not only face an internal election but also six state elections in the space of a few months.
To add to its woes, five of these states — Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Penang and Selangor — were those where Umno lost all its traditional seats during GE15.
All of the states are now headed by PN and PH, making Umno’s road to recovery seem more treacherous.
Zahid even touched on the matter in his special briefing on Wednesday, saying they might collaborate with PH in the state elections.
It is understood that Umno will take the lead in Kelantan and Terengganu while PH will drive the campaigns in the remaining states.
However, Umno vice president Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid said no formals talks have taken place at the state level with PH parties yet, something that makes the fragile relationship with both parties still uncertain.
“Of course, we are ready to be together,” Mahdzir said, relating that he is ready to collaborate in his home state Kedah, where the former mentri besar lost for the first time since 2004.
However, continued poor election performances may result in a worse future for Umno in general and Zahid and his faction, in particular.
“Of course, if Umno continues to lose in the state election, Zahid will be seen as the reason why people left the party and be viewed as irrelevant,” said Faris Zulkifly, a delegate from Sabah.
Some delegates at the 2022 Umno general assembly saw that leaders seemed to avoid talking about the party’s performance in GE15 and addressing the party’s loss of support.
Umno delegates watch the live stream speech from the Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi during the Umno's general assembly (PAU 2022) at World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur January 14, 2023. — Picture by Hari Anggara
“That is the situation that happened throughout this week especially involving Umno supporters. Instead they should use the assembly as a platform for an autopsy to identify the cause of defeat for the second time after GE14,” said Mohd Fikri Ibrahim from Johor.
While there is no doubt that some delegates touched on the defeat, this was drowned out by the “unofficial” campaign deck of Umno leaders who are said to have expressed their desire early on to contest in the next party election.
“If we ignore the matter and don’t ready our information departments, election machinery and propaganda divisions, we would repeat the same bad result as we did before,” said Khairul Idham Ahmad from the Federal Territories.