Umno alone

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In January Putrajaya Umno was fined for holding a frozen chicken event without following the Covid-19 SOPs. The incident epitomised the problems the party was having – no longer in the national leadership seat, the party was coming under greater scrutiny for failing to follow the law. Former party president Najib Abdul Razak was convicted in July 2020 for his involvement in the 1MDB scandal and the trial of the current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, facing charges of corruption, was about to start.

The event came days after an emergency was declared preventing a general election and closing off the path that could provide the gateway for Umno to return to power after winning its traditional Malay-majority seats. Then the party was rattling Muhyiddin Yassin’s cage, threatening to leave his coalition government.

Now two months later, the decision to sever the relationship with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu has been endorsed at the party’s 75th general assembly. The decision gives full authority for current Umno party’s leaders to set the timing of the exit if a general election is not called in a timeline of their approval. Like the movie, Home Alone, Umno is seen to be defending itself from burglars who have been seen to be stealing its members and, most important of all, occupying the seat of power as prime minister that they believe is rightly theirs. They want the supposed burglars out of the house.

Like Kevin in the movie, Zahid has shown he is in charge and resourceful in protecting ‘his house’. He has capitalised on the defensive sentiments in the party to rally around enemies. This time the main enemy is Bersatu. Even PAS has been called out for undercutting Umno. The tradition of rallying around perceived threats is a well-honed strategy for Umno party leaders. ‘Enemy’ strategies traditionally leave scars, polarising national politics and sharpening divisions. This one will as well, as it will limit the options for the party under Zahid moving forward. Umno is showing that it wants to fully occupy the house.

“I just want my family back.”  – Kevin in Home Alone

The events this weekend were not just about protecting the house, but also about mending divisions within Umno. Bersatu was couched as the divider of Umno. Those that supposedly collaborated with the robbers have been warned or held accountable – supposed ‘pests’ no longer supposedly a bother. The fallacy is that the party has come together.

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

The family is being portrayed as no longer separated. Like Kevin in the movie, Zahid and Najib had been left to face their punishment. Now, both men are fully back in the party’s fold, the family is back together again. Having a common enemy can do that.

While portrayed as an external threat dividing the party, the real sources of division in the party are internal. Umno is arguably the most fragmented it has been in the party’s history. Divisions have been present since the 1MDB scandal was exposed in 2015 (leading to the formation of Bersatu) but the divisions have deepened after the electoral defeat in May 2018 and the collaboration of party leaders with Bersatu. The reason is simple – the divisions are about how the party has been led or rather misled.

The family problems remain serious. As is often the case, what appears on the surface is, in fact, quite different on closer inspection. While it would seem that differences have been put aside, the issues of outstanding leadership charges within Umno remain. It is contested whether it is Najib or Zahid that is actually calling the shots. Others inside the Umno family want the party leadership completely changed. The party election is supposed to be held in July, but these polls will likely be postponed. The solution to the angst against the current leadership now rests with the courts.

The outcome goes beyond personality differences. Ultimately, Umno will not be able to expand its base with Zahid or Najib at its helm. Both men are tainted. They can galvanise the party base, but they will not be able to expand it.

National problems

Keep in mind the 2018 GE14 performance was Umno’s worst in history. If holding on to the base is the game plan, the loyal party faithful will likely return. Ultimately, however, the base alone will not get Umno control of the house. Umno has been losing ground among younger voters for decades and it will not be able to win them over in a strategy that does not allow the party’s leadership to change or in a dynamic where the party still seems to be about the interest of the leaders rather than voters.

Umno needs new leadership for national power. The party has shown that it is unwilling to make these changes. An electorally viable Umno is one where those who violated the rules are held accountable and the party looks forward, rather than be held hostage to the past.

“There are 15 people in this house and you’re the only one who has to make trouble.”  – Kate McCallister (Kevin’s mom) in Home Alone

Malaysian politics has long seen that when there is trouble in Umno there will be implications for the country. Umno’s problems are national problems. This is the case even after the party was kicked out of power. Umno has found a way to continue to transfer its internal problems to the nation as a whole.

Resolving leadership issues alone will not be enough for Umno to return to power. They will need allies. In recent months, with its coming and goings of support and meetings – will or will not support in a vote, meet or not meet or say they did not meet – the party has shown that they are not willing to work together unless they are in charge.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang with former PM Najib Abdul Razak

They have shown an unwillingness to solve problems internally, opting instead to take their grievances into the open and to mobilise. Those in Umno’s leadership have found ways to destabilise those in power to, in effect, rock the house. These practices are not those of reliable allies.

Umno’s go it alone strategy may be seen to strengthen the party. Based on current conditions, they will likely win their traditional seats. Yet, even with the announced divorce, the backroom wheeling and dealing continue as Umno has now opened up negotiations for different parties. Although the rhetoric has toughed, the papers have yet to be officially signed on the Bersatu divorce.

The most important question is where does this leave Malaysia. What happened last weekend in the Umno general assembly strengthens those currently in charge of the party. It does not, however, serve Umno’s interests over the medium or longer-term as it stunts reform and showcases how difficult Umno is to work together within a context of coalition politics that will require viable alliances to hold power. The relationships between political parties are now more open than ever, with nothing off the table.

As in the movie, the feeling towards victory in defending the house is real among those who supported the Bersatu divorce. Yet, it is clear that there will be a sequel to this saga as it is not over.