UMNO is in the grip of a crisis. Its new President Mohamad Hasan brings something new to the table, but it may be too late to save the party.
At the beginning of 2018, nobody in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) could have predicted quite how far the party would fall in Malaysian politics.
Twelve months ago, the party was gearing to compete in a general election with its candidate the incumbent Prime Minister. It looked set to emulate the same success it had replicated in every election since Malaysia’s independence in the 1950s.
Now, as the nation enters the final days of 2018, the party is staring its own mortality in the face. After suffering a humbling defeat at the ballot box, UMNO’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak is facing 38 criminal charges over the 1MDB scandal.
UMNO’s crisis stretches far beyond the corruption of its former leader. A rupture in the party is causing extensive internal bleeding. On December 12th, over a dozen Sabah UMNO lawmakers left the party and joined the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Two days later, six more lawmakers followed. Then, on December 20th, 31 UMNO assemblymen resigned.
In the face of mounting criticism over the direction of his leadership, particularly from the party youth UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi stepped aside. The assumption of Zahid’s former deputy Mohamad Hasan, or Mat Hasan, as UMNO president appears to have stopped the exodus for now, but the UMNO patient is still in a critical condition.
The right man for the job?
Mat Hasan, the former chief minister of Negeri Sembilan, is the ex-managing director of Cycle & Carriage Bintang Berhad and cut his teeth in the corporate world. As such, he is not a political insider like Zahid before him.
This political inexperience could be a breath of fresh air for UMNO. He represents a break with his predecessors which made UMNO’s name synonymous with graft and corruption and have been prominent features of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) investigations.
Zahid’s close ties to Najib were among the reasons many in the party turned against him and called for his departure. Mat Hasan has no such affiliations.
Given the severity of the charges against Najib, and the 45 charges against Zahid, an UMNO president without mud on his hands could be just what the party needs to avoid deregistration.
Mat Hasan also has his new deputy, Jelai state assemblyman Ismail Sabri, to turn to for political counsel. Ismail hails from Pahang and came up through the UMNO Youth (kiland Pemuda Umno). He has extensive party connections and political experience.
Hasan also has a clear direction in which he wants to take the party. He wants to decentralise power by divulging more responsibilities to state administrations. At a media conference following his assumption as party president, Mat Hasan said he would create a committee to explore “how we can give more power to the states”.
Simultaneously, he will give Sabah UMNO full autonomy. This is widely seen as an attempt to stem any further resignations from the state.
UMNO is still relevant
While UMNO’s future remains uncertain, there are some clearly defined avenues to survival. UMNO has maintained its strong political networks and grassroots support which will be vital to preserving the future of the party.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is doing his best to fuel the image of UMNO as a rotten party where “cash is king” and corruption is rampant. UMNO must purge itself of corruption, fully cooperate with the MACC, and oust members with credible graft accusations against them to cleanse itself of this label.
Secondly, it must exploit the areas where Mahathir has shown weakness. It must formulate cohesive economic policies that will address the economic woes of ordinary Malaysians.
Mahathir swept to power on promises of putting more money in Malaysians’ pockets. But nearly eight months in, little has changed. UMNO must avoid the temptation of populist policies, and instead focus on meaningful economic growth and tackling the rising cost of living.
Mat Hasan will have to navigate the UMNO snake pit
Perhaps the biggest obstacle Mat Hasan faces are the political factions within UMNO. UMNO has become a snake pit. Many of those calling for Zahid’s resignation were former allies, including Hamzah Zainuddin and Khairy Jamaluddin.
There are five clear factions within the party that have competing ideas over the future of the party. One faction wants to remain unaffiliated with any other party. Another wants to align with Bersatu, another with PKR, another wants to join forces with PAS, and a final group wants to form a new coalition altogether.
Despite much talk of a PAS-UMNO alliance, the most likely outcome will be UMNO remaining unaffiliated. UMNO’s supporters would be unable to accept a coalition with PKR due to its ties to DAP. Similarly, Mahathir would rather kill UMNO off than see his Bersatu party line up with his former colleagues. The PAS president, Abdul Hadi Awang also expressed his reluctance to get on board a sinking ship by uniting with UMNO at this moment in time.
UMNO will be on its own until its future is certain. If it can show Malaysians that it can survive until the next election without imploding, splitting, or collapsing under the weight of corruption charges, it may find an ally in PAS, but for now, it must limp on alone.
Even if Mat Hasan can escape the snake pit and bring the factions together, there is no guarantee he can get UMNO to a place of recovery. His measures to stem UMNO’s internal bleeding can only go so far.
The MACC has a wide net and is pulling in a catch of slippery and corrupt UMNO politicians every week. Many in the party see joining PH as a way of escaping justice. No amount of political restructuring or the decentralisation of power will get these members to stay, and even if they do, UMNO has no place for them if they want to whitewash the party and eradicate graft.
Mat Hasan offers UMNO the best possible chance of survival, but corruption is an infection. Mat Hasan can stop the bleeding, he can even build a recovery plan for the patient after surgery, but unless he stops the infection, the patient will die anyway.