Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and UMNO party president UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi will compete not cooperate at the country's next election. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – When Malaysia’s largest political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), held its annual general meeting last weekend, its delegates endorsed a plan to contest against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s shaky ruling coalition at the next general election – the same coalition it is currently propping up.

The Malay nationalist party is currently the largest bloc in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing alliance. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s announcement that the party will contest elections as part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it separately leads and not cooperate with any other parties was, however, a foregone conclusion.

A feud between UMNO, which continuously governed Malaysia for more than 60 years until 2018, and Muhyiddin’s smaller Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party, an UMNO splinter group, has stoked infighting and ultimatums, effectively destabilizing the premier’s 13-month rule as his government maneuvers to get a handle on a resurgent Covid-19 outbreak.

Despite the rupture, power-sharing between UMNO and Bersatu is set to continue until at least August, when a declared state of emergency that has suspended Parliament and the holding of elections will expire. UMNO’s president has said its ministers, deputy ministers and lawmakers would withdraw support from PN once a clear exit date is decided.

With the country’s 15th general election (GE15) expected as soon as this year, analysts see political battle lines being redrawn and the possibility of a new post-election coalition, one that potentially returns UMNO to power with support of ideologically divergent parties aligned with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance.

“BN has decided that we will face GE15 on our own,” said Zahid during his March 28 policy speech. “Let me be clear, once and for all: for UMNO to become dominant again after GE15, we must win the most number of seats. Secondly, BN needs to determine which party is really sincere to form a government with us.”

UMNO is still reeling from its unprecedented defeat at the 2018 election at the hands of PH, which governed for 22 months before its collapse in February 2020, paving the way for Muhyiddin’s premiership and the founding of PN as an informal coalition, marking the first time ever UMNO joined a governing alliance in which it did not occupy a position of political preeminence.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and acting president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), speaks to reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Zahid, 68, had been Malaysia’s deputy premier under the Najib Razak administration prior to UMNO’s electoral defeat. He appeared to emerge from the two-day assembly on a stronger footing after being empowered by a general assembly and the supreme council to quit the PN government, led by what one UMNO chief described as a “dwarf” party.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate of the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, said what while Zahid, who is currently on trial for a litany of corruption charges, demonstrated that he now wields control over the party’s political base, he was speaking from both a position of weakness and strength.

“Zahid has definitely been able to move from a situation of weakness, where he was being potentially thrown out [of UMNO] for a whole number of things, including alleged criminal activity,” said Welsh. “He’s now been able to get the backing to move out of Bersatu, and it gives him leverage vis-à-vis PN on a personal level but also on the party’s level.”

The academic also sees UMNO as “a party in crisis”, and Zahid’s strategy as a reflection of weakness in the sense that the party now arguably finds itself more fragmented than it has ever been in its history, with internal divisions having deepened since it lost its long-held position of dominance after its historic electoral defeat.

“UMNO doesn’t have what it wants in terms of being in political power. In fact, its playing second fiddle, arguably even third fiddle. It doesn’t even choose the tune, or determine who the orchestra players are anymore. And I think that it’s trying to find itself politically,” she added. “The party is still going to face divisions over who wants to stay with Bersatu or not.”

Those internal divisions were most clearly on display when Zahid launched barbs against former BN secretary-general Annuar Musa, who he described as a “parasite” without directly mentioning him by name. Annuar, who is the minister of federal territories in Muhyiddin’s Cabinet, is the only party figure who has openly spoken out against UMNO cutting ties with Bersatu.

The rift is emblematic of divisions between the so-called “court cluster”, led by corruption-accused but influential figures like party president Zahid and former premier Najib, versus the “cabinet cluster” comprised of ministers in Muhyiddin’s government like Annuar who prefer to continue political cooperation with PN.

Posters labeling Annuar a “traitor” were distributed at the UMNO meeting, prior to Zahid accusing an unnamed minister of “stabbing UMNO from the back” during his policy speech and challenging that individual to resign. Annuar was sacked as BN’s secretary-general in January and accuses the party’s leadership of suppressing dissenting opinions.

UMNO stalwart Annuar Musa would prefer to stick with Muhyiddin. Photo: Facebook

Annuar has argued that the winning formula for UMNO would be for all ethnic Malay political parties to unite and avoid clashes during GE15, a stance shared by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist party allied with both Muhyiddin’s Bersatu as a component of PN and Zahid’s UMNO through their separate Muafakat Nasional (MN) pact.

UMNO and PAS forged an alliance under an informal MN charter in 2019, though the pact has yet to be officially registered. The Islamist party has since become an official component party of PN, a registered political entity, which UMNO had refused to do, raising questions among some in UMNO as to where PAS’ loyalties truly lie.

One UMNO youth chief notably likened PAS’ stance to “polygamy” during his assembly speech. PAS has thus far refused to pick sides and is aiming to be a bridge that unites UMNO and Bersatu. Analysts, moreover, interpreted Zahid’s promise to “empower” sharia law if UMNO clinches a supermajority in Parliament as an attempt to undercut PAS.   

“What we saw at the general assembly over the weekend is that it wasn’t really about the break up with Bersatu, precisely because that was already on the cards and pretty much well known,” said Welsh. “It was more about throwing the gauntlet at PAS and saying we’re going after your political base, because they see PAS as being part of PN.”

Razlan Rafii, an UMNO supreme council member who is seen as a Zahid supporter, told Asia Times that the party wants PAS to contest alongside BN at elections, which he said would “win a huge number of seats” in the coming contest given that “PH failed to fulfill their promises and PN failed to stabilize the country.”

“PAS knows that they cannot win the next general election if they work together with Bersatu,” Razlan said. “If BN and PAS work together, definitely a government can be formed. It has to be made clear that GE15 is not only about BN and PAS winning but it is about how to rebuild the country again, which has been destroyed by PH.”

Despite UMNO’s professed antipathy toward PH, backchannel talks between the two sides have taken place in recent weeks, according to opposition leader and PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim. At a March 16 press conference, he confirmed “initial discussions” had taken place between members of UMNO and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which he leads as president.

Anwar, who has presided over several failed leadership challenges in recent months, has not ruled out the possibility of cooperation with UMNO. That is despite pushback from PH and other opposition lawmakers and who have publicly voiced their objections to cooperating with “kleptocrats”, a reference to UMNO leaders with pending court cases including Zahid and Najib.

Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves after a press conference at the People’s Justice Party headquarters in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

When Anwar announced last September that he had secured a “formidable” parliamentary majority necessary to unseat Muhyiddin through lawmaker defections, many speculated that the opposition leader had cut a deal with Zahid’s faction after the latter publicly confirmed that “many” UMNO lawmakers were supporting the PKR president’s bid.

Anwar’s gambit fizzled out in spectacular fashion when Muhyiddin’s government passed its 2021 national budget with majority support in November. UMNO has continued to distance itself from the opposition leader, with Zahid asserting in his general assembly speech that no such discussions between UMNO and the PKR had ever taken placed.

“Negotiations are happening in many different levels across the spectrum,” said Welsh. “The politicians will deny them, but we’re in a situation where everybody wants to maintain their political power. They want to win office and they’re going to do everything that they can, including making deals, and we’ve seen that multiple times.”

The academic added that PKR leaders have been trying to hone a narrative that supports finding a “middle ground” with UMNO but find themselves hobbled by recent strategic mistakes. Many opposition supporters, moreover, see such willingness to collaborate with UMNO as a sign of the opposition losing its moral compass under Anwar’s leadership.

“Anwar’s reputational issues are really challenging. He’s seen as the man who didn’t have the numbers. At the same time, we see a situation where they are now willing to undercut their reform credentials for political power, and this is not well received,” said Welsh. 

PKR sources quoted in local media reports claimed that one of the goals of UMNO-PKR talks was to avoid three-cornered fights in constituencies currently held by Bersatu at the upcoming elections. UMNO has since vowed to reclaim all 15 parliamentary and state seats lost due to its lawmakers defecting to Bersatu.

“I think UMNO is fully aware from the previous general election that if it chooses to have three-party contests, they would actually be doing so at their own peril,” said Welsh. “Will UMNO go into the general election on its own? It might, but it might also have informal political pacts with others.”

Zahid played down those backchannel talks, say observers, because UMNO’s right-wing ethnic Malay grassroots are not receptive to the idea of political cooperation with left-leaning multicultural PH parties. The UMNO president notably did not dismiss the possibility of cooperation with PH after elections are held, though.  

If there is no clear GE15 winner, analysts aren’t writing off the possibility of UMNO coming together with PH parties in a post-election coalition, provided that the former is once again the preeminent force in such a coalition. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged that anything can happen if no party clinches majority control at the poll. 

A man attends a protest against Muhyiddin’s government at Independence Square, Kuala Lumpur, February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

“Now that a hung parliament is almost a new normal, parties are learning the game of post-election coalitions,” said political analyst Wong Chin-Huat. While discussions among parties to form a coalition government after an election are normal in many democracies, Malaysian elections are usually waged between two identifiable competing coalitions.

“Don’t be surprised if UMNO and PH form the next federal government after the next election,” Wong added, pointing to an occasion last December when UMNO and PH lawmakers joined forces in an unprecedented and ultimately successful bid to oust Bersatu deputy president Ahmad Faizal Azumu as chief minister of Perak state.

UMNO’s Razlan said that a new coalition would only be formed if no one party secures a majority in Parliament. He added that Sarawak-based political alliance Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) – which currently backs PN – would join such a coalition and that the president of the party with the most seats in Parliament would be the prime minister.

“We do not want a party that does not have the biggest [amount of] seats in Parliament to take the prime ministership. We have seen this with PH (under Mahathir Mohamad). This had resulted in the instability of the government of the day. The days where the minority party leads the majority party are over, and this formula will not be re-adopted again,” he said.

Whether Zahid, who faces 87 criminal charges for various counts of corruption leveled against him during the PH administration, emerges as BN’s prime ministerial candidate will be decided if UMNO holds internal elections to choose its leadership ahead of GE15. UMNO’s court and cabinet factions are reportedly divided over when to hold intra-party polls.

Khairy Jamaluddin, UMNO’s former youth chief and a Cabinet minister in the PN government, has called for party elections to be held as soon as possible to resolve its “internal crisis.” Ex-premier Najib has argued that internal polls should be held after the election to reduce the likelihood of defections that could undermine the party.

UMNO’s deputy president Mohamad Hasan said during the recent general assembly that the party plans to hold its internal election this year, provided a general election isn’t called beforehand. He said branch elections are scheduled to take place in August, and polls for its 191 divisions and central leadership positions would be held two months afterward.

“The party has to hold party elections. Whether or not these happen before or after the general elections will be important because we have a situation where Zahid himself is facing criminal prosecution,” said Welsh. “It’s not so clear when that case will be over. Some say people as early as May. Some say [the trial] could be extended to October.”

Legal troubles for those in the court cluster make UMNO’s return to federal power by any possible means an existential imperative. In the circumstances, previously unthinkable political alliances cannot be ruled out if polls, which must be held at the latest by 2023, result in a hung parliament with no clear winner.