Leading countries and corporations keeping tabs on Malaysia, widely seen as a paragon of Muslim moderation and an economic success story for developing nations, know well that the most important elections in the country are not those for Parliament, but rather the ones held every three years for posts in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)
Helming the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government in Kuala Lumpur, UMNO has always been the country’s dominant party, and the man elected its president automatically becomes prime minister.
That, at least, has been the case for the past half-century. But following setbacks in the last two general elections in 2008 and this past May, the UMNO-led coalition’s unity and future hold on power now looks less certain.
Five years ago, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR or People’s Alliance) coalition nearly quadrupled its seats to 82, led then by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of then detained opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. It was the first time since Independence in 1957 that the ruling coalition failed to secure a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
After the 2008 election, when the Front also lost five states—including powerhouse Selangor—UMNO’s then leader, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, was forced out and replaced by current PM Najib Razak.
At his ascendance the year after the federal polls, Najib vowed to reunify and reinvigorate the dominant alliance, reverse the election setbacks, and win back Selangor.
He has failed to fulfill all three promises. In the May polls, the Front dropped seven more seats, did not recapture Selangor, though it won back Kedah state. While retaining a majority in parliament, it lost the popular vote. Slightly more than half of the electorate supported PR, against 47.38% who voted for the Front.
The swords came out for Najib, now aged 60, and many were sure he would face the same fate as his predecessor Abdullah.
The only hiccup was that UMNO had no obvious credible figure to take over the leadership. The PM’s deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, is a dour campaigner who is six years older than Najib and has a somewhat tarnished reputation. Other senior figures in the party are equally uninspiring.
So Najib managed to survive the immediate post-election blues and rally his forces for the more important challenge: UMNO’s party polls held last month on October 19. Of course, all those partymen disillusioned with him also had time to look around for a viable and brave candidate willing to take on the Prime Minister.
First up was the old warhorse, Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been in the wilderness since losing a battle for party leadership to then-PM Mahathir Mohamad back in 1987. However, while Razaleigh could have acted as a stalking horse, he was never going to be a credible challenger, so a younger figure stepped forward: Mukhriz Mahathir.
The youngest son of Malaysia’s longest-serving leader had already shown himself to be a force in the party by rising to become chief minister of Kedah after UMNO won back the state in May. It is Malay heartland territory, and folks there never liked Najib’s early talk of reaching out to the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities, whom they viewed as potentially eroding Malay dominance.
But Mukhriz, 48, lacked the stature to challenge the PM directly, so he chose to run for one of the three vice-presidential posts, all of them held by Najib loyalists. In particular, he targetted Hishammuddin Hussein, the current defense minister, who, until recently, was viewed as Najib’s most likely successor.
Like Mukhriz, Hisham is also the son of a former PM, Hussein Onn, as well as being a cousin of Najib. But his brutish performance, particularly in his earlier post as Home Minister, won him few friends, and it was clear that he was vulnerable. So it proved last month, when the upstart Mukhriz failed by just eight votes to unseat the powerful Hisham.
Had he succeeded, Mukhriz would have been seen as a potential prime minister and a figure around whom the party’s Malay chauvinists and anti-Najib forces could coalesce. Unfortunately for Mukhriz, however, it was probably his first and last shot at the top, for another figure, younger and far more charismatic, waits in the wings to take over the leadership: Khairy Jamaluddin.
High political stature
Re-elected as head of the party’s youth wing, the stature of Khairy, 37, both among Malays and also ethnic Chinese and Indians, is higher than that of most other politicians in the land. While Muhkriz and the right-wing forces around him will likely regroup and take another shot at Najib, it is now probable that the PM will survive until Khairy is ready to take over.
Meanwhile, Anwar and his PR bloc aren’t resting on their laurels. Come the next general election in 2018 or sooner, the opposition will be working to add another 23 seats or more to take over Parliament and government. And UMNO’s uncertainty at the top can only work in its rival’s favor.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)