The playbook is the same for Malaysia’s grand old party.
Eyeing a strong comeback in a crowded election race on November 19, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) touted “stability and prosperity” in a manifesto laden with populist measures from tax cuts and cash aids to some reforms.
Once an omnipotent force credited with developing and modernizing Malaysia, anger over government corruption led to its unimaginable defeat in the 2018 polls. It bounced back in 2020 as part of a new government, but ties with its allies soured and UMNO is seeking to regain its mandate.
In its favor is a fractured opposition and an electorate fed up with political turmoil, rising inflation and a slowing economy. On the flip side, UMNO faces a trust deficit after its top leaders were charged with corruption. It has failed to shed its patronage and rent-seeking culture, and internal bickering presents a challenge. There is also a potential public backlash for calling an early election despite the risks of floods from monsoon rains.
The reform drive within the party has taken a backseat after it reclaimed the government just 22 months following its electoral defeat, said Amir Fareed Rahim, director of strategy at public affairs and political risk consultancy KRA Group.
“The (UMNO) faces at the top are more or less still the same, which means there are still negative perception issues and trust deficit with the public,” he said.
UMNO leads the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain until 2018. It was the country’s de facto ruler, with UMNO president holding the post of prime minister.
The watershed 2018 polls sparked hopes of reforms as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or hauled to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak became the first Malaysian leader imprisoned, over a case linked to the massive looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund that led to his party’s ouster. Najib’s wife is also battling a 10-year sentence on separate graft charges.
But just as astounding as its defeat was UMNO’s swift return to power in early 2020 after defections led the reformist ruling alliance to crumble.
UMNO’s frenemy pact with two Malay parties that all vie for support of ethnic Malay voters saw continuous turmoil. In all, Malaysia had three prime ministers since 2018. In the end, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob caved in to pressure from UMNO and dissolved Parliament last month for snap polls.
Ismail Sabri, a lower-ranked official, was the first prime minister who wasn’t an UMNO leader, creating factions within the party. This was because UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is battling dozens of corruption charges and the party No. 2 wasn’t a federal lawmaker.
Opposition leaders have warned voters that Zahid, who led the push for early polls, is counting on his coalition’s win to get off the hook in his graft trial and take over as prime minister. Zahid has portrayed himself and Najib, who faces several more trials over the 1MDB saga, as victims of political persecution.
Although UMNO says Ismail will remain prime minister if it wins, Zahid has consolidated his power by dropping eight party strongmen aligned to Ismail from the polls. Even if Ismail stays on, critics say he will be a lame duck premier.
“The ambiguity over the premiership despite clarifications from UMNO leaders is definitely an ammunition that is being used rather effectively by the opposition and may adversely impact BN’s electoral fortunes,” said Amir of KRA Group.
Zahid, 69, has dismissed the allegations as the desperate ploy of his rivals. On Monday night, he unveiled his coalition’s manifesto as “pro-people, pro-reform, pro-development, and prioritizing inclusion.”
Zahid promised absolute poverty will become a thing of the past because his government will give cash to poor households to ensure they have a basic monthly income of 2,208 ringgit ($466). The manifesto offers some political reform for more accountability, an overhaul of the education system and incentives to embrace diversity at school and workplace.
Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, and get privileges in jobs, contracts and education under a decades-old affirmative action program that has long alienated large Chinese and Indian minorities. Critics say the system has been abused by UMNO elites to enrich themselves, with large contracts often given directly to cronies.
“If UMNO still wins in 2022, it portrays the pervasiveness of UMNO’s patronage network,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political analyst with the Science University of Malaysia. “What UMNO needs is a new generation of leaders whose conscience is not tied to the interests of UMNO’s self-perpetuating warlords.”
Some recent surveys have shown that UMNO hasn’t gained ground with Malays in several recent by-elections, and won in large part due to a low turnout of opposition voters.
While the opposition is divided, UMNO also faces a split in its traditional Malay support base and some 6 million young new voters remain a wildcard.
Firebrand opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, also a Malay, is the main challenger. He was serving time on a sodomy charge he said was politically motivated when his Alliance of Hope won the 2018 polls, led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory, and Anwar was pardoned by the nation’s king shortly after. He was due to succeed Mahathir before their government collapsed. Anwar’s bloc is promising a reset in government policies to focus on merits and needs, rather than race, and good governance to plug billions of dollars it said was lost to corruption.
In addition, UMNO is also challenged by a Malay-based coalition headed by its previous allies in the government. Mahathir, 97, is running with his own motley Malay alliance to oust a corruption-tainted UMNO.
Political analyst Ahmad Fauzi and some others predict a hung parliament that could see new alliances formed after the election.
“It is competitive and difficult to predict given the large number of fence-sitters. But it is UMNO’s to lose given it had all the upper hand in terms of timing to call the elections,” said Amir, the KRA analyst.