The UMNO’s Brewing Civil War

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The UMNO’s Brewing Civil War

What’s behind UMNO president Zahid’s letter to Prime Minister Muhyiddin?

The UMNO’s Brewing Civil War

In this Sept. 29, 2018, file photo, United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, center, speaks during UMNO general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Credit: AP Photo

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s presidential tenure in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has been under significant pressure. He faces 87 charges in court. Following the 2018 General Elections and defections, the number of UMNO parliamentarians has fallen from 54 to 39. Zahid also faces competition from party rivals. Among those believed to be gunning for the gavel are Minister of Foreign Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein, Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation Khairy Jamaluddin, and UMNO Deputy President Mohamad Hasan.

Zahid’s term as president is slated to end in 2021, when the UMNO is scheduled to hold party elections. Party insiders have privately stated that they do not expect Zahid to defend his post. In recent weeks, however, the threat to Zahid’s presidency seems to have escalated. There have been rumblings that UMNO will hold an emergency general meeting (EGM) to expedite his exit. This suggests that Zahid’s rivals may be unwilling to wait til 2021.

Developments since the middle of April indicate that Zahid may be seeking to shore up his position against any moves to remove him. On April 16, Zahid sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recommending four UMNO Sabah leaders for government positions: Kinabatangan member of parliament (MP) Bung Mokhtar Radin as chairman of the Federal Development Agency; Kimanis MP Mohamad Alamin as a deputy minister, former Minister Rahman Dahlan as a senator; and Yakub Khan as the chairman of the Labuan Port Authority. About a week later, Zahid reinstated Tanjong Karang MP, Noh Omar, as the UMNO Selangor state chief. These could sway the direction of an EGM.

For an EGM to be held, two criteria need to be fulfilled. First, two-thirds of the Supreme Council must vote in favor of holding it. Next, the party’s 191 divisions need to hold division-level EGMs. A national EGM will be held if a majority of the divisions vote for it. Pre-empting a national EGM would therefore require Zahid to consolidate sufficient support in the Supreme Council and UMNO divisions.

Notably, three of the Sabahan leaders Zahid is lobbying for are members of the UMNO Supreme Council: Bung, Rahman, and Yakub. Noh is also a Supreme Council member. Zahid may be looking to these leaders to deny the required two-thirds vote. Firming up a base of support among division leaders is just as important.

The most important states in UMNO politics are Johor (25 divisions), Sabah (25 divisions), Perak (24 divisions), and Selangor (22 divisions). The four states have by far the most divisions in the country and are considered signal states. A leader who has majority support in these states is likely to command a majority nationwide. As such, Zahid’s appointment of Noh as the Selangor state chief, as well as his lobbying for Sabahan leaders (including Bung, the Sabah state chief) can be read as moves to establish support among division leaders in these states.

Indeed, state chiefs play important roles in coordinating the party president’s strategies and directives. Along with the president, state chiefs co-authorize funding for divisions. Should Zahid make overtures to leaders in Perak and Johor, it would be safe to bet that he is attempting to secure support in the signal states.

Lobbying Muhyiddin on behalf of UMNO Sabah may also have a second purpose. While Sabah is an important state to the party, UMNO’s Sabah chapter is a shadow of its former self. Between the 2013 and 2018 elections, UMNO’s share of MPs in Sabah fell by half – from 14 to seven. The subsequent defections hit UMNO Sabah the hardest. Six of its MPs quit the party, while 16 of UMNO’s 17 Sabah state legislative assemblymen (MLAs) defected as well. Much of the party grassroots in Sabah are also believed to have quit.

Even though UMNO regained a seat in the January 2020 Kimanis by-election, the victory had little to do with its Sabah chapter’s political prowess. Indeed, UMNO Sabah was cash strapped and did not have enough of a local grassroots presence. During the by-election campaign, there were many reports of Kimanis UMNO members jumping ship to Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan), which is led by former UMNO Vice President Shafie Apdal. It was also rumored that UMNO Sabah had effectively conceded the by-election before polling day as it could not compete with Warisan’s exercise of patronage politics. UMNO’s surprising win was due to canvassing by party members from Peninsular Malaysia, as well as infighting between Warisan and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).

This may have been enough for a by-election. A general election, however, is a different ballgame. With UMNO’s manpower stretched across the nation, its local candidates would need entrenched local grassroots support. Thus, it has become imperative for UMNO Sabah to rebuild itself. The means of achieving this comes from renewed access to government.

Lobbying Muhyiddin for government positions could allow UMNO Sabah’s leaders access to resources, oversight over the issuance of contracts, and the authority to give party members other government appointments. These are forms of patronage that can be distributed to key constituents and party members. By setting the stage to rebuild UMNO Sabah, Zahid is seeking to establish support with the corresponding divisions.

While Zahid’s game plan seems calculated, he faces a few problems. The proportion of Supreme Council members who still back him is unclear. Neither is it guaranteed that the UMNO state chiefs and division leaders will play ball. With Zahid’s political fortunes declining, they will be weighing the costs of supporting him. Rival factions such as that led by Hishammuddin may also be exercising influence over them.

Furthermore, Muhyiddin may not accede to Zahid’s requests. On the one hand, UMNO leaders have suggested that Muhyiddin risks losing the party’s support because of his unwillingness to give it proportionate representation in government.  They have said that they are prepared to trigger a General Election. Yet Muhyiddin appears confident that UMNO would prefer having less access to government to facing the risk of being returned to the opposition, and has called their bluff. Additionally, if Muhyiddin sees Zahid’s letter as a plea for personal survival, he could just as well brush it aside. Considering these trends, the next steps seem largely out of Zahid’s control. And if moves to hold an EGM hold true, Zahid’s time could well be running out faster than he hopes.

Prashant Waikar is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).