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Umno still leads the way

Will Najib wait for the MIC, MCA, Gerakan and PPP to play catch-up?

AFTER the March 2008 general election, when public sentiment against the Barisan Nasional (BN) swirled dark and hopes were bright for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s multicultural politics, Umno was everybody’s favourite punching bag.

Perhaps riding on public sentiment that favoured the opposition, partners in the BN coalition were not afraid to complain of Umno being a bully and to openly discuss leaving the BN. How valid are such complaints, when today, two major BN component parties — the MCA and the MIC — have proven that their relevance is determined by Umno?

Fact is, by numbers alone, Umno cannot be less than the dominant party. Moving forward, what does Umno’s current resurgence mean for the rest of the coalition and for the political landscape?

Well-oiled machinery

Recent events such as Umno’s constitutional amendments to give more members a say in electing party leaders, and a leadership retreat to regroup the party, have added momentum to Umno’s drive forward. Winning the Bagan Pinang by-election handsomely was also a huge morale booster.

But it would be misleading to think that Umno was somehow in the doldrums to begin with. Umno has always been strong, even when the BN as a whole was denied its two-thirds majority in Parliament at the 2008 polls. The party won at least 60% of the parliamentary seats it contested in 2008, while partners MCA and MIC only recouped about 30% of the seats they stood in. Gerakan was reduced to having only two Members of Parliament and was completely ousted out of Penang.

The real reason for Umno’s revival, says political analyst Prof James Chin from Monash University Sunway Campus, is Datuk Seri Najib Razak‘s leadership.

“He is a systems person — he pays attention to the details — unlike Pak Lah, who was a big picture person,” Chin says of former Umno president and former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Under Abdullah, Umno was weakened in that its strong players — the warlords — were sidelined, Chin explains.

Isa Samad
“Najib is allowing those sidelined to make a comeback, as seen with Tan Sri Isa Samad. This gets the party machinery moving again as the grassroots base of these warlords are reactivated now that their leader is back in the game,” Chin tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

Umno’s strength is also derived from the government machinery. By controlling the civil service, notes Chin, infighting in other component parties will have little impact on the BN’s overall strength.

With access to government institutions and funds, the BN can still address public demands even if its key component parties are in disarray. And with votes in East Malaysia heavily tied to development, the BN can ensure that its “fixed deposits” there remain intact by delivering on development promises.

Fractured partners

The other BN components are expected to play their role in netting the non-Malay Malaysian vote. But can they reform in time? So what if the MCA has a unity plan? Will this necessarily cause Chinese Malaysian voters to renew their trust in the MCA again?

Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research says the problems of BN component parties are “more acute than the apparent infighting”. The underlying issue is not leadership tussles, but lack of community support.

“Their primary task was to deliver the non-Malay [Malaysian] vote. But if their own communities don’t trust them, what is their purpose in the BN?” he tells The Nut Graph.

“The larger issue for the MCA post-EGM is to what extent the party can regain relevance in the overall national situation with regards to ethnic power-sharing and things like equal access to government contracts and procurement,” observes Ibrahim.

For the MIC, even if president Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu were replaced tomorrow, the party remains fractured in the aftermath of the internal elections which were allegedly fraught with cheating. The Indian Malaysian community is further divided with the emergence of new parties and Najib’s endorsement of the Malaysian Makkal Sakti Party.

Kayveas (Source:
For the People’s Progressive Party, there is the split between president Datuk M Kayveas and former deputy Senator Datuk T Murugiah. But the party’s larger problem is the loss of Taiping, its sole parliamentary seat in the last election. “Without even one seat in Parliament, what are they still fighting for?” says Chin.

Clearly, Najib is not waiting for the other component parties to catch up. He’s toned down Umno’s right-wing Malay rhetoric and initiated popular measures. These include tweaking the New Economic Policy through market liberalisation, reaching out to the Indian Malaysian community, declaring Malaysia Day a public holiday, and even reviewing the Internal Security Act. With or without the component parties, Najib is charging ahead to ramp up support for the BN with the tools at his disposal.

Chin believes the prime minister is shaping up for a snap election ahead of the term’s end in 2013. “It could possibly be next year, as soon as the economy recovers,” he suggests. And Umno would be in a comfortable position to face the polls, with its share of the rural Malay Malaysian vote still intact or even stronger, judging from the results in certain recent by-elections.

Urban sceptics

Based on past analysis, the PR’s brand of pluralistic and egalitarian politics has the best chance in mixed seats. The BN party with the best potential to attract voters who are intellectually PR but politically BN is Gerakan. Despite the appearance of inactivity after its defeat in Penang, it is said to be experiencing growth.

Raymond Tan (Source: sabah.
Ng Yeen Seen, the deputy director-general of Gerakan think-tank Sedar Institute, says that Malay Malaysian and Indian Malaysian membership has grown in the past year. East Malaysian recruits have also increased since former Sabah deputy chief minister Datuk Raymond Tan left the Sabah Progressive Party to join Gerakan in May this year.

“Gerakan is intact. New members are attracted to our ideology because we’ve been consistent even after losing in the general elections,” Ng says. However, Ng declines to reveal how many new members have joined the party. But proposed party constitutional amendments to increase the number of branches and to widen the pool of candidates for certain positions seem to reflect what she says.

Yet, even if Gerakan succeeds in competing with the PR for the urban middle-class vote, will Umno give it its dues? When president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon announced that Gerakan was going on a recruitment drive to find professionals to field as candidates in the next general election, Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly said, according to a Chinese-language newspaper, that it was too early to identify candidates, and that Gerakan should reform itself first.

How, then, will BN parties move ahead as one? Perhaps Najib isn’t really waiting for them to do so. He’s already begun to respond to public sentiment through the government machinery. And for as long as trouble erupts in PR parties regularly enough, the latest being in PAS, Najib is in a decent position to wage battle for votes.

Things being as they are, Chin describes the next elections as a battle between Umno and the opposition. If the other BN component parties don’t manage to pull their weight in time, this may have implications for ethnic and party representation in the next cabinet.

See tomorrow:
Assessing civil society post-March 2008

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