Given the current state of Umno politics and the fate of government leaders, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is aware of his precarious position and is treading carefully and mindfully. — Malay Mail photo

FOLLOWING a string of electoral victories last year, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional appeared to be on track for a triumphant homecoming and a return to power in the 15th General Election. In the immediate aftermath, people were optimistic that political stability and unity would be restored for good, free of further power struggles at the epicentre, and that the economy would be on the mend and heading for better times. It appeared to be so.

The political landscape was changing rapidly. Pakatan Harapan and Bersatu, which were soundly defeated in Melaka and Johor state elections, were struggling to re-emerge as potential power rivals. Although they remain hopeful of a favourable turn of events ahead of the 15th General election, Umno’s two main Malay-dominated rivals are left to lick their wounds, at least for the time being.

How much longer will they be nursing their wounds, and how long more will the battle lines between Umno and the rival Malay parties remain irreparable are questions which political pundits may not be interested in as much as they were previously, given that Federal politics has been unstable since 2018 and the epicentre is prone to shifting. Many will argue that any answers will be temporary, at best transitory, and will only serve to keep the situation from boiling over while the real battle for power continues, with many more contenders drawn in as thespians in the high political drama.

Resurgence of Umno hits a snag

The post state elections (Melaka and Johor) period saw Umno moving under a clear blue sky. The period saw the resurgence of Umno, which clearly emerged as the preferred choice in the two state elections and is widely perceived as such throughout the country in the event of a general election. Umno had regained its footing, and almost every leader and warlord was focused on regaining power and defeating the ‘enemy.’ The stakes were too high to for a casual glance.

What appeared to be ‘all’s well that ends well’ did not seem to hold up well for long. Things were beginning to change. The ground they had fortified over the previous year began to tremble. The scramble for power among leaders began, and the pursuit of power moved at a much faster pace, especially for those who needed power to redeem themselves from legal shambles.

Trust, collectivity of purpose and party-centricity soon found themselves placed on the back-burners by senior power contenders, at least temporarily, to allow personal agenda to gain traction. In the midst of this is the party’s president, Dato Sri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who, along with former Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib Razak, is facing court trials for alleged corruption, and their involvement is widely said to be a key reason for the escalation of the squabble.

Power and survival

Power and survival, or whatever order one prefers, must reign supreme. Power breeds survivability in the same way that survivability breeds power. The equation appears simple like a rehearsed textbook line, but the path to achieving it is far more complex and intriguing than words can describe.

The power struggle has been kept under wraps for some time, with many contenders fearing that a misstep would put them on the wrong side of the powerful Umno warlords, costing their political survival.

But the seal had just been broken, and the previously hidden secret stories began to spill out of the Pandora box one by one, shortly after the Umno MP for Pasir Salak, Dato Sri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, broke ranks with party president Ahmad Zahid after being expelled from the party’s supreme council. Tajuddin’s action and retaliatory statements that followed precipitated long-simmering discontent and unhappiness among party leaders.

Political squabbles have devolved into a full-fledged brawl, threatening to split the party. Analysts generally agree that Umno has split into two factions: the court cluster and the Putrajaya cluster, which includes Cabinet members and Umno leaders who support Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob Ismail, an Umno vice-president under pressure to dissolve Parliament to make way for GE15.

Umno at its recent special general assembly also amended its constitution to postpone party elections, a move likely to benefit Zahid and the court cluster. In terms of party matters and Umno politics, PM Ismail Sabri would have to listen to or be guided by President Ahmad Zahid, unless he disagrees and chooses to break ranks with the president and the president’s men. Would he dare to do so now, when his position as Prime Minister appears to be weaker than that of his predecessors?

Among the senior Umno leaders said to be allied to president Ahmad Zaid are Dato Sri Najib Razak, Datuk Mazlan Ahmad while those to PM Datuk Ismail Sabri Ismail, who is also vice-president of Umno, are Tan Sri Annuar Musa, Dato Sri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman. Don’t rule out Dato’ Seri Utama Mohamad Hasan, the ex-Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan who also aspires to be the President of Umno and Prime Minister of Malaysia. At 66 and with extensive experience in banking and the corporate world, Mohammad, also known as Tok Mat, enters the fray as a man of his own, not aligned with either of the two factions, at least for the time being.

Waves of uncertainty

While Umno’s impending cracks and divisions send waves of uncertainty to BN components and BN-friendly parties, they also raise the spectre of opportunity for Pakatan Harapan tonegotiate new alliances and move into power voids. In politics, anything is possible. A new narrative is staring us in the face.

Academics and analysts have called for the 15th general election to be held soon, citing the adverse economic impact of Umno infighting. There is no indication that the situation will be resolved anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Fitch Solutions said in its country report that while political infighting was less likely before GE15 as Umno was likely to close ranks and focus on winning the polls, the risk of factional disputes would increase once victory had been attained. This could leave Malaysia with less effective policy-making and implementation capabilities again even if BN wins at the election.

With the economic problem exacerbated by market price increases for essentials, the ordinary citizens have no choice but to bear the additional financial burden. The power struggle raging among top-tier leaders is a major distraction for policymakers, who are expected to give high priority to resolving the current economic woes.

While political power and survivability are very important to key leaders in the dominant party, and the path to achieving it in the short term, they may suffer from a trust deficit in the long run.

Given the current state of Umno politics and the fate of government leaders, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is aware of his precarious position and is treading carefully and mindfully. A slip-up could cost him his position in Umno and his candidacy in the 15th General Election.

Clear blue sky for Sarawak politics

As lightning and thunder continue to rumble the epicentre of Umno power, Sarawak remains calm, with the GPS leadership working to accelerate the pace of socioeconomic development that crosses ethnic and religious lines. Sarawak has also set sights on becoming a digital economy model state, ahead of the rest of the country, and all of this is possible thanks to strong political leadership and the commitment of most Sarawakians, regardless of ethnic or political affiliation, to the pursuit of a shared destiny.

GPS, led by Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, is enjoying good political weather in Sarawak and will continue to do so for the next five years or even more. Given the position of strength of GPS vis-à-vis the politics in Malaysia, the Sarawak government can run the full tenure of its term and chart its own course of development across a wider expanse without being dogged by unnecessary political interference from Kuala Lumpur.

  • Toman Mamora (PhD Nottingham, UK) is a communication and research consultant. He comments on contemporary social and political issues and seeks to raise public opinion on subjects of societal value.