Internal elections within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have resulted in Prime Minister Najib Razak shoring-up his support base amid increased competition from old party stalwarts and despite a poor showing at the May national poll.
Among those who attempted to stamp themselves as potential future leaders were Mukhriz Mahathir, 48. The son of Malaysia’s longest serving leader Mahathir Mohammad, his political maneuvers have been widely viewed as an attempt protect his father’s controversial legacy.
However, Mahathir junior fell short and finished fourth in the race for the vice presidency, indicating that any lingering sentiment for his 88-year-old father – widely blamed for bitter ethnic and religious divisions within Malaysian society – has ebbed.
Mukhriz finished fourth with 91 votes after contesting one of three vice presidential spots and demanding a recount. He still lost, falling behind the incumbents Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Mohammad Shafie Apdal and Hishammuddin Hussein, who retained their posts.
“This was indeed a blow for the Mahathirs. Many in UMNO would have thought Mukhriz a favorite for the second top job but perhaps their days of influence may be over,” one seasoned observer said.
Najib has sought to wind back the harsh security laws and economic policies entrenched by Mahathir Mohammad, which favor Malay-born Muslims over ethnic Chinese and other groups who deserted UMNO and the Barisan Nasional coalition it leads at the May elections.
However, those efforts have often been thwarted by arch-conservatives in his own party who fear losing the support of Muslim hardliners more than votes from the Chinese, Indian and Christian communities.
The opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – perhaps Mahathir’s top political enemy – actually won the broader popular vote in May but lost out due to gerrymandering.
Mahathir and successive governments have often been accused of near hysterical behavior when dealing with Anwar, who has been jailed and beaten.
As UMNO was preparing for its annual vote, Malaysian students in Australia were warned in atrocious English that their scholarships would be under threat if they attended a lecture by Anwar, who was scheduled to talk at Adelaide’s Festival of Ideas over the weekend.
“Please refrain yourselves from further joining this activity,” an email, said to be from a student adviser at the Malaysian consulate in Sydney, apparently said.
“You are smarter to think and focus on what matters, rather than joining this activity that could make your hardship in maintaining good grades and earning the scholarship goes down the drain. I wouldn't hesitate to take stern action to those scholars who involved. You know really well what you've signed into.”
UMNO’s childish contempt for Anwar, who once served as Mahathir’s deputy, is as well-documented as the mean-spirited nature of certain politicians within the ruling party when it comes to battling it out for the senior position within UMNO. Recriminations can be expected given Mukhriz Mahathir’s loss.
However, it’s an attitude UMNO can ill-afford if it is serious about winning back political ground lost to the opposition over the last two elections and preventing Anwar or his allies from taking power at the next general election.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt