By Hook or by Crook? Umno’s Early GE15 Miscalculations

Well, Malaysia’s election is on, come hell or high water. And the 15th general election (GE15), which Umno wanted, presents an opportunity to reduce legal pressure on some of its leaders and for the party to potentially return to power in a coalition where Umno sets the rules.

After the Melaka and Johor polls, there was reason for confidence, what with Umno-Barisan Nasional (BN) winning 75% and 71% of the seats, respectively. For months thereafter, Umno leaders relentlessly pushed for GE15, with now-caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob finally buckling to pressure last week, and proving to be a party man rather than his own man. 

Time of destiny?

There still is good reason for Umno-BN to be confident. Of the 3 major coalitions going into polls, it’s the most prepared and has shown in the last 2 state elections that it can best mobilise supporters.

Beyond lower turnouts and disappointment with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, 2 factors contributed to Umno’s recent electoral gains — the impact of Perikatan Nasional (PN) winning the vote share previously won by PH and thus, turning 3-cornered fights to Umno’s advantage; and gains in support, particularly from Indian voters.

If post-2021 trends continue, Umno-BN could win easily. On top of that, there is the potential that the “kingmaker” role of Sabah and Sarawak will be reduced, especially if Umno wins back seats in Sabah, and if PAS gains seats and makes a deal with Umno to return to the federal government.

On the ground, quietly but determinately, Umno has been pushing a racialised survivalist campaign, reminding its traditional supporters of the threat of supposed “Malay displacement” of not voting for the party.

It has painted itself as the chosen one, the “destined winner”, plugging into nostalgia for a long-gone era of certainty at a time of uncertainty.

In particular, Umno has reached out to the business community, most of whom are fed up with the inadequate attention to the economy, navel-gazing politicking, and lack of consistent policy delivery that has characterised too much of governance since 2018.

Umno has repeated a claim (unsubstantiated in Melaka and Johor) that returning it to the helm will strengthen the economy and bring back investment, sweetening the pot with the promise of even greater spending if it is re-elected.

In many ways, with high expectations, GE15 is Umno’s to lose. Ironically, this follows the path of all earlier general elections in which Umno had an advantage. Yet, what is striking about the first week of GE15 post-dissolution campaigning is how much the party is going about losing it.

No rain dance

An early election is, however, not as much of an advantage as expected. Ismail Sabri called polls when there’d already been flooding in 6 states –—JohorKedah,  Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak. With the impact of climate change ever apparent, the monsoon has started early. 

Not only are there concerns for lives and livelihoods, but emotions are also running high after horrible floods from Tropical Depression 29W last December. People still remember the storm surges in Pahang, dangerous high waters in Selangor and the devastation that resulted in 59 lives lost and over 125,000 people displaced

Umno’s approach has been to downplay these concerns, and, for some leaders, dismiss them altogether in a blind elections-at-all-cost approach. The opposition has made hay out of this with the tagline #undibanjir in a battle over the narrative of holding polls, along with all opposition-run states opting not to go ahead with state elections in protest.

While common wisdom is that possible flooding would work to Umno’s advantage by reducing turnout, the opposite may, in fact, be true, as anger has been one of the pivotal emotions connected to voting behaviour in Malaysia. From the Hindraf protest in 2008 to former prime minister Najib Razak’s crimes in 2018, sentiment brings the votes, particularly for the opposition. 

Double-whammy leadership problem

While rain is beyond the control of politicians, the battle for control among Umno politicians is ongoing. Pre-dissolution deals are being challenged, with various motions discussed at divisional meetings on leadership and solidarity. So far, rather than uphold current caretaker prime minister and Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri as PM-designate, it is Umno’s party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s ambition that has been most apparent. Zahid has taken the lead in the campaign, with his avarice on display.

As in GE14, the Umno’s president is the party’s biggest liability.

Instead of save Malaysia” or “save Malaysians”, he has adopted a “save the party” (more accurately “save the elites of the party”) approach. 

In the first few days of the campaign alone, his obsession with his own criminal cases were made obvious in public remarks equating his own charges and criminal prosecution (which includes 47 charges for corruption, abuse of power and money laundering in an ongoing trail and 40 similar charges in another case on appeal) with risks of supposed political persecution to his fellow coalition leaders. A disdain for the Rule of Law was evident, worsened by an announcement that convicted Najib was among the names Umno nominated for his parliamentary seat Pekan in Pahang.

While Umno has subsequently stepped back from nominating a convicted criminal as a parliament candidate — as it violates the law — and stated that the nomination occurred before Najib was imprisoned, the damage was done. 

Collectively, Umno has opted to continue to empower the tainted leaders that lost them the last general election.

Leadership vacuum

Umno has a serious leadership problem going into GE15. Unlike in Johor (and to a lesser extent Melaka), where competency and performance in government were used to win votes, in the coming election, the 2 main Umno contenders for prime minister are not widely popular. The support is narrow, to parts of the party’s traditional base. Both men are “ultra” Malays, with little appeal across the diverse communities of Malaysia as a whole and have little in terms of policy legacies in their various terms as ministers. 

So far, Zahid has embarrassed Umno nationally and internationally with his remarks and style. He is a relic from Umno past, living in a new political context. Rather than use the pulpit to project reasons for the public to vote for the party, he has used the attention to project himself and instead, come off as Umno’s bully, albeit a cunning one.

For his part, Ismail Sabri lost support among the party’s grassroots by delaying dissolution and was labelled weak. Since he gave up the fight, he has eroded the broader public support he had for standing up to Umno’s leaders and focusing on governing. Ismail Sabri has had the shortest tenure as prime minister in history and has little personally he can take credit for. In a not-making-friends move, his first attack post-dissolution was to blame his former coalition allies for said dissolution.  

Throughout, other more competent leaders in the party have been pushed aside, at least so far, while infighting for positions and candidacy inside the party continues. The need for a party motion calling for “solidarity” is telling.  

Rather than capitalise on its advantage by getting early polls, in just one week Umno has reminded voters of why it was kicked out of power.

Another opportunity to reform Umno has been lost. The question ahead is by what means, by hook or by crook, the party will attempt to recover the ground it has lost even before the official campaign has started.


First published on Between the Lines.