KUALA LUMPUR, March 27 — After a year of provisionally supporting Perikatan Nasional (PN), Umno will chart an independent course for the 15th general election and is set to solidify this at its annual assembly this weekend.
Reeling from its unprecedented defeat at the 2018 election, the Malay nationalist party is still developing the formula for its political survival and revival, with its experiments ranging from forming a new coalition and feeling out new allies.
What has not changed, however, is the party’s hunger for pre-eminence.
As Umno delegates — representing a vast array of grassroot sentiments — prepare to deliver their unfiltered thoughts, here are five themes to watch for during a potentially fiery assembly.
1. Dumping Bersatu
This year, both Umno leaders and members will make sure that their resentment with Bersatu is recorded clearly and for posterity, even after the party has already announced that it will not partner up with the nominal ally for GE15.
The lines between ally and rival will blur even further at the assembly, where Umno delegates are expected to denounce the PN administration for its alleged failures — particularly in ministries under the control of Bersatu leaders — and justify the party’s decision to abandon the ruling coalition.
Umno leaders will likely also come under pressure to emphatically break from Bersatu, due to growing views among its grassroots that public sentiment was turning against the PN coalition due to its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and lacklustre measures to revive the battered economy.
The members fear that Umno will suffer from the association with Bersatu when disgruntled voters head to the ballot box.
2. Muafakat Nasional and PAS’s motive
Many Umno members are still keen on proceeding with PAS under the Muafakat Nasional (MN) banner but their concern has grown due to recent statements and stances by the Islamist party, such as forming PN state committees rather than strengthening MN.
While MN is the older alliance, PAS has since become a component party of PN, which is also a registered political entity compared to the informal charter between the Malay nationalist and Islamist parties.
PAS has been trying to mediate between Umno and Bersatu, and has not committed to one or the other as a result.
While Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is expected to reaffirm that the relationship between both parties remains strong and unhindered, delegates will inevitably demand to know where PAS’s loyalties lie.
3. Feelers for the party’s elections
With Umno expected to hold its internal elections in June, there will be calls from the grassroots for a changing of the guard at the top.
Suspicions continue to hover over the motive of every decision made by party president Ahmad Zahid, who remains under the cloud of corruption cases, since he resumed the position after initially stepping aside temporarily.
The same cynicism has also befallen other Umno leaders with unresolved criminal cases, the so-called “court cluster” that includes former president Datuk Seri Najib Razak who remains influential despite his multitude of charges stemming from the 1MDB global corruption scandal.
The delegates are expected to push for those such as deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, Information chief Shahril Hamdan, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Khairy Jamaluddin to be elevated in the party.
While insiders said Umno could postpone its internal election to avoid distractions from GE15 that is rumoured to be nearing, there is a growing clamour asking if Umno’s best are in place to lead into Ge15 and beyond.
4. Assurances on the potential alliances
The collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government created a volatile political situation that Umno has tried best to capitalise upon.
Apart from taking over the federal government, Umno also cooperated with PN parties during the Sabah state election to topple the Warisan-led government.
Yet prior to that, it also joined with PKR, Amanah and DAP in Perak to oust Bersatu deputy president Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu as the mentri besar, replacing him with Umno’s Datuk Saarani Mohamad.
While all the political manoeuvring appears to have benefited the party, grassroot members are generally upset that Umno deliberately worked with traditional enemies, especially the DAP.
This discontent only worsened when Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim claimed he has the support of Umno members of parliament to take on the PN administration.
While Zahid has denied Anwar’s claim, this has not convinced grassroots members that this was a bridge their party will not cross.
They will likely warn party leaders against the same shadowy negotiations that preceded the so-called “Sheraton Move”, fearing that Umno could be viewed as unprincipled or, worse, betrayed at a critical moment.
5. Umno must not lose out
Ultimately, Umno members want the party to again lead a grand coalition — as it once did with Barisan Nasional — and return to federal power but without sacrificing the party’s core aim of championing the Malay community.
With change in political dynamics since 2018, however, there will be a clash of ideologies on how this should be achieved.
While PH and PN are each working towards building their own grand coalition, many in Umno believe their party should be the one to lead such a grouping rather than simply signing on.
Notwithstanding the expected chest thumping and browbeating of political rivals, party insiders indicate that some members will try to appeal for party leaders to build political bridges rather than burning them.
Given the discontent within Umno at the moment, however, those who do should expect to face the ire of their peers and accusations of disloyalty.
The Umno general assembly this year is to replace the 2020 edition that was postponed due to the pandemic, and will take place across March 27 and 28.
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