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UMNO president Zahid Hamidi has every reason to be pleased with himself. Despite his party’s dismal performance in the 2022 general election, he has personally emerged with more power and influence than he had before. Some would say that he even holds the government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim hostage because without his 30 seats in Parliament, the government would collapse.

At the recently concluded UMNO general assembly, Zahid also managed to stave off challenges to his leadership by orchestrating a no-contest motion for the post of president and deputy president in upcoming party elections. Zahid’s cronies argue that it is to prevent a split in the party but it is clear that Zahid is less than confident about his support within the party. The motion kills any pretence that UMNO is a democratic party and puts paid to any chance of real reform.

At the same time, he successfully deflected all blame for the party’s worst ever election performance. Quite an achievement for a man who bullied then prime minister Ismail Sabri into calling for early elections, divided the party going into the elections by dropping powerful warlords, brought in candidates who were unprepared and had little traction with voters, failed to articulate a coherent election strategy, miscalculated the mood of the voters and misjudged his opponents at every turn.

He even had the audacity to complain that UMNO’s campaign was hampered by a lack of funding and that the opposition took advantage of this “weakness.” But if UMNO was so unprepared financially to mount an election campaign, why then did he press for early elections? Was he so focused on saving himself from prosecution that he was willing to risk his party’s fate on an election that the party was not ready for?

Zahid may now have carried the day but UMNO will eventually pay the price. There’s no doubt that UMNO has been in decline. Over the last three election cycles, it has seen its share of seats in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat drop from 88 in 2013 (GE13) to just 26 in 2022 (GE15).

There was a time when voters – Malay and non-Malay alike – saw Barisan Nasional with UMNO at its head as the natural governing party. It was not perfect but it was always perceived to have found the right balance between the rights and interests of Malays and non-Malays and was rewarded for it. 

Those days are now long gone. UMNO has come to be seen as irredeemably corrupt and abusive, failing both Malays and non-Malays. Non-Malays long ago soured on UMNO for its increasingly racist rhetoric. The 1MDB scandal, on the other hand, was the last straw for the Malays; it came to epitomise all that had gone wrong with UMNO and quickly turned into a tipping point. 

Of course, the writing was long on the wall but UMNO leaders were too blinded by their own sense of power and entitlement to see it. They had many opportunities to change their ways and reform themselves but they did not. The road not taken was the beginning of their downfall.

After the severe mauling they received in the 2018 election, many hoped yet again that UMNO would take a good hard look at itself and change its ways; instead, it went back to business as usual with Zahid being elected party president. It could not have been a more disastrous decision. One can only speculate where UMNO would be today if someone like Johari Ghani or even Khairy Jamaluddin for that matter, had led UMNO into GE15.

It is not just that Zahid himself is facing dozens of criminal charges for corruption, abuse of power and money laundering (though the charges are both serious and highly damaging to his reputation and credibility); he simply does not have a clue as to what it would take to win back the Malay heartland. 

Non-Malays are, of course, thrilled by Zahid’s 180-degree turn – from demonizing them to embracing them as partners – but it is by no means certain that his apparent change of heart will be as well received by a Malay electorate long fed on a diet of race and religion. 

In the end, all the posturing at the general assembly ignored the elephant (or albatross) in the room. The Malay heartland has rejected both Zahid and UMNO as too corrupt and self-serving to represent their interests. Surely, that would have been a good place to start if the party was looking to redeem itself and win back Malay support. 

By refusing to yield to younger, more credible leaders, however, Zahid has simply doomed his party to a slow death, something which the coming state elections should confirm. Worse still, it now leaves the conservative Malay vote with nowhere else to go other than a party that is hellbent on transforming Malaysia into a religious state.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 20th January 2023]