Friday, April 3, 2009

Factionalism prevails in new Umno

April 2, 2009

By Dr Lee Hock Guan & Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

THE new leadership line-up in Malaysia shows a significant change to Datuk Seri Najib Razak's camp and his supporters.

The results show that factionalism in Umno remains significant, and that it is the faction behind Umno president and future prime minister Najib which is in control.

The three deputy vice-presidents elected are seen to be staunch Najib supporters. Most crucial was Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's successful bid for the deputy president's post. He was the one who had led the call for outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's resignation.

Based on the show of solidarity on the final day of the Umno assembly, new Umno president and incoming Malaysian prime minister Najib may be willing to work with, rather than against, his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. But it remains to be seen just what the relationship will entail.

However, the victory of Datuk Seri Abdullah's son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin in the race to be Umno Youth chief, which Tun Dr Mahathir vigorously tried to prevent, shows that there are some limits to Dr Mahathir's influence.

Mr Najib will have to deal with the unexpected win of Mr Khairy, who outstripped his nearest rival, former Selangor menteri besar Khir Toyo, by 50 votes and clipped the ambitions of Dr Mahathir's son, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.

The Supreme Council will have a mix of Najib supporters and others from various regions and states. Mr Najib can further strengthen his position as party president by appointing several members of his choice to the council.

The results show that apart from Mr Najib, the Johor group is also in the power bloc, led by Mr Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein.

There is also recognition of the importance of Sabah to Umno. Sabahans now have a vice-president and three Supreme Council members. Perak also has the formidable Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who topped the vice-presidents' votes. This could be significant given Umno's current embroilment in Perak politics.

Among the significant losers were Domestic Trade Minister Shahrir Samad and Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman. Datuk Shahrir is noted for his political integrity and reform-mindedness, while Datuk Abdul Ghani's loss could prefigure a new Johor menteri besar. Stung by defeat, Mr Shahrir indicated last Friday that he would vacate his Cabinet post.

While Mr Najib may have firm control over Umno, continued factional politics means balancing appointments, ministerial positions and state-level positions.

Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, who topped the Supreme Council votes, would ensure some Kelantanese presence (as would Datuk Awang Adek, elected into the council), while Datuk Shafie Apdal would ensure that Sabah's interests are taken into account.

It has been suggested that Mr Najib plans to make significant changes to the Cabinet and that the defeats of Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, Mr Shahrir, Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said and Datuk Seri Rais Yatim have made his job easier. Key ministerial posts would have to be given to the three new vice-presidents. The Home, Defence and Foreign Affairs ministries could see changes. Following convention, one would expect new women's wing leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and Mr Khairy to be slotted for Cabinet posts.

Despite the show of solidarity, for true party unity the Najib leadership will have to show concrete results, such as winning support on the Malay ground and delivering goodies (contracts and business opportunities) to Umno members. This is because a split in Umno would only benefit the opposition, especially Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Given Malaysia's electoral system, the incoming premier cannot push too hard against non-Malay voters who are inclined towards the opposition. Neither can Mr Najib alienate Malays voters, who could easily swing to PAS. In fact, his main task is to balance the needs of non-Malays and Muslim-minded Malays to win back ground lost during and after March 8 last year.

Compared to Mr Abdullah, Mr Najib will clearly take a harder stance vis-�-vis the opposition parties - Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), PAS and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). He may target the more threatening PKR under Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's leadership and play a softer line vis-�-vis PAS and DAP. It is likely that he will deploy legal instruments, the courts and the police to contain oppositional politics rather than outright coercion such as arrests under the Internal Security Act.

Previous pronouncements by key Umno leaders show strong support for the continuance of the pro-Malay New Economic Policy (NEP). However, Malay businessmen like CIMB group chief executive Nazir Razak and politicians like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah have said the NEP impedes economic competitiveness.

A sizeable portion of Malays are upset by the way the NEP has been abused to benefit Umno politicians and well-connected businessmen. Spreading the benefits of the NEP more widely among Malays could help Mr Najib's party win back the Malay ground. But this has to be done without eroding support from non-Malays. In the past, with strong growth, it was possible to implement 'growth with equity', but this is hard to achieve given the bleak economic scenario.

Umno members may be heaving sighs of relief that badly tainted politicians such as Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Dr Khir did not attain the high positions sought.

As things turned out, the party's election results confirmed what many had already glimpsed - that there were serious splits within the party. Depending on developments in the near future, this may discourage Mr Najib from using an iron fist against opponents and civil society in the coming months. Harsh measures may gain him short-term advantages, but these will be at the cost of serious long-term damage to himself, Umno, the Barisan Nasional and the country.

It does seem that Mr Najib got most of the people whom he wanted in the party leadership. This will provide him with some badly needed self-confidence to carry out the party reforms he proposed just before the general assembly. He knows that the world is watching, and he will want to do something soon to gain credibility in the eyes of voters and the local and foreign media.

Dr Lee Hock Guan is Senior Fellow, and Dr Johan Saravanamuttu is Visiting Senior Research Fellow, at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Their latest book on the recent Malaysian general election is March 8 Eclipsing May 13 (co-authored with Ooi Kee Beng).

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