Does UMNO have a future in Malaysian politics?

Malaysia's parliament in session. Photo: DannyG15, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia’s largest political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has faced difficulties over the past few years but the party still has a future in Malaysia’s elections. Any attempts by other parties to ban or deregister UMNO are likely to further increase the party’s popularity.

By Umair Jamal

Since Malaysia’s 2018 general election, its government has remained embroiled in a crisis as the country’s oldest political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), tries to restore its old glory.

In its struggle to regain political dominance, UMNO has made alliances with political foes and faced widespread defections, leaving the party with new concerns about its long-term survival.

The party’s leadership believes that UMNO remains a national party with a clear future as it plans for the next election, likely later in 2021.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is threatening to deregister the party but the move could prove dangerous for the government as UMNO remains a popular party with a large voter base. Muhyiddin is the head of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, known as Bersatu.

Once a dominant political force, UMNO faces threats of deregistration

Once a principal political force in Malaysian politics, UMNO has reached a point where smaller political parties are trying to wipe its name from the country’s political landscape. After winning the 2018 election, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition attempted to deregister UMNO by shutting its bank accounts and investigating its leaders for various corruption scandals.

While PH couldn’t deregister UMNO, many believed the formerly dominant party would disband as a majority of its ticket holders joined other parties, particularly Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu.

In an effort to survive, UMNO joined hands with Bersatu and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to overthrow the PH government. Muhyiddin became Prime Minister in March 2020 with several UMNO lawmakers regaining ministerial posts under the new coalition.

As predicted by analysts, within a few months of this government’s formation, differences emerged between UMNO and Bersatu. In October 2020, UMNO threatened to withdraw parliamentary support for Muhyiddin if he failed to share power with them. The party didn’t follow through on the threat but made its intention clear: that Muhyiddin’s survival depends on offering a more visible role to UMNO in the government.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain

Muhyiddin’s government is now on the brink of losing its majority in Parliament, after an UMNO lawmaker withdrew support for the administration in January. With the ruling coalition now holding only 110 out of 220 seats, if one more parliamentarian withdraws support for Muhyiddin’s administration, his government won’t be able to pass legislation without the opposition’s support.

Seeing UMNO’s leverage as a threat, Muhyiddin is will probably try to deregister the party in an attempt to win more seats by then holding by-elections to fill UMNO’s seats. Muhyiddin’s government may use allegations that UMNO has operated a secret bank account since 1988 to support their push to deregister the party.

UMNO leadership suspects that such a plan may already be underway. “Why are some in PPBM [Bersatu] trying to interfere by asking the Registrar of Societies (RoS) to probe UMNO’s so-called secret unaudited bank account?” asked UMNO Supreme Council member Razlan Rafii.

“Let RoS do its job. This [interference] cannot happen without any planning [from PPBM insiders],” Rafii told FMT.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left), pictured here with then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

UMNO leadership believes the party has a clear future

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has dismissed criticism that his party has no future in the country’s national politics.

“Some have raised questions as if UMNO has no direction,” Zahid wrote in a Facebook post. “What is the UMNO president doing? Where does UMNO want to go from here? I understand their anxiety. Therefore, today I assure you that UMNO has a clear direction.”

Another UMNO leader who spoke anonymously with Free Malaysia Today said that “We feel PPBM [Bersatu] will go to any length to weaken us” but added that his party’s leadership is working on alternative plans to ensure they can contest the next election regardless of Muhyiddin’s efforts.

The party’s vice president, Khaled Nordin, says that UMNO doesn’t plan to make an alliance with Muhyiddin’s party in the next election and will challenge Bersatu. UMNO’s leadership is certain that the party won’t need electoral alliances with any party to win the next general election. Khaled told Nikkei Asia that once the party wins the next election, “we would then be speaking to relevant parties who want to be part of the government that we were to form.”

UMNO’s announcement is meant to dispel impressions that the party is a spent force, but the apparent withdrawal of support for Bersatu confirms that the collapse of Muhyiddin’s government is imminent.

Photo: Firdaus Latif, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Can the Muhyiddin government deregister UMNO?

For Muhyiddin’s government, it won’t be easy to ban UMNO from contesting elections or ban it permanently. Regardless of UMNO’s poor performance in the last general election, the party remains a popular choice for the Malays, the single largest ethnic group in Malaysia. In the 2018 election, UMNO received 60% of the Malay ethnic vote. The party’s leadership believes that any Malay voters who didn’t vote for UMNO in 2018 were lost due to the divided Malay electorate rather than any other reason.  

As UMNO and Bersatu both compete for the Malay vote, one party is unlikely to ban the other, even if it were possible, as such a move would prove very divisive. A move to deregister UMNO will enrage Malays, undermining Muhyiddin’s chances as UMNO could end up winning sympathy votes.

Even if deregistering UMNO is off the table, Khaled still expressed confidence. He says that Bersatu will not be a challenge when it comes to securing Malay votes. “UMNO is not a new party and we have faced all federal elections with loyal voters on the ground,” he said.

As one UMNO source told Free Malaysia Today, “It’s a brand. They are attached to the name. They will not let UMNO wither and die just like that.” That said, it remains to be seen how UMNO will achieve a comeback without making electoral alliances with other parties.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15