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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's UMNO bets on itself before election clash with Muhyiddin

In unusual move, party VP says no coalition talks until after COVID-stalled polls

A United Malays National Organisation rally in 2017, before the party fell from power: Malaysia's largest single political force is confident its grassroots support will pay off next time.   © EPA/Jiji

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's largest political force, the United Malays National Organisation, is confident it will win enough seats in the next election to lead the formation of the government. It is so sure, in fact, that it does not intend to negotiate a fresh alliance beforehand, according to its vice president.

UMNO grudgingly helped Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin fend off a leadership challenge late last year, before his push to call a national coronavirus emergency suspended parliament and stalled the seemingly imminent 15th federal polls. But UMNO's vice president, Khaled Nordin, told Nikkei Asia that his party will go head to head with Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) whenever the vote happens.

Khaled said UMNO expects to win the bulk of Malay-majority parliamentary constituencies -- the same voters Bersatu will be chasing. He said any talks on a new alliance would only come after the election, a shift from standard Malaysian practice where parties team up to go into battle together.

This way, he said, UMNO would have the upper hand, unlike the current situation where it is the biggest party in the ruling coalition but takes a back seat to Bersatu.

"We would then be speaking to relevant parties who want to be part of the government that we were to form," said Khaled, a former federal minister and chief minister of Johor.

Khaled said Bersatu poses little threat to UMNO's ability to win Malay votes, considering his party's historical influence and grassroots support. "UMNO is not a new party and we have faced all federal elections with loyal voters on the ground," he said.

Khaled Nordin, seen in this file photo, says UMNO will not pay former members who moved to Bersatu any deference in the next election.   © EPA/Jiji

UMNO was formed in 1946, nine years before Malaysia's first general election in 1955. Bersatu was only established in 2016, two years before the May 2018 vote. The former has won every general election except that May 2018 contest, when Mahathir Mohamad led Bersatu and the Hope Pact coalition to a shock victory, ousting scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mahathir's government, however, was short-lived due to a political coup engineered by Muhyiddin and UMNO. Both Mahathir and Muhyiddin used to be UMNO members.

Despite being part of the current government, UMNO -- now led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi -- has distanced itself.

One reason for the detachment is that many Bersatu lawmakers today were UMNO members who crossed over after the older party lost power in 2018. The list includes several cabinet officials, such as Economy Minister Mustapa Mohamed, Home Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin and Rural Development Minister Abdul Latiff Ahmad.

Khaled said UMNO and Bersatu are likely to face each other in several constituencies where lawmakers won their seats on UMNO tickets last time around. "We will definitely contest all seats that we contested in the last election," he stressed, adding that the cross-overs "are no longer our members, so why should we consider anything for them?"

Also working in UMNO's favor is the fact that Muhyiddin has limited alliance options.

"Bersatu will never get the support of the opposition, so it's our advantage," he said. Last fall, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim insisted he was the one with majority support in parliament, sparking a bitter battle over Muhyiddin's job.

Khaled did suggest that UMNO's aggressiveness could depend on how an existing partnership plays out.

Adopting the mantle of Islam and vowing to uphold the rights of Malays, UMNO sealed an official pact with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in September 2019, when the former rivals were both in the opposition. Khaled said the arrangement, known as the Muafakat Nasional or National Concord, remains in effect, with regular meetings between party leaderships.

The UMNO vice president noted that the two parties had an election strategy agreement not to contest against each other, so as not to split the Malay vote. But he conceded that the dynamics might have changed given that PAS is also part of the current Muhyiddin-led coalition.

UMNO is eager to hold the election as soon as possible while the tie-up with PAS is still intact, according to Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This is where the COVID-19 emergency complicates the party's plans -- the declaration is set to last until August unless infections are brought under control earlier.

"As time drags on, PAS appears to be drawn closer to Bersatu," he said. Oh explained that "with Muhyiddin in the driver's seat, [Bersatu] can more readily accommodate PAS' Islamization agenda."

If Muhyiddin does manage to recruit PAS to switch sides, Oh said the prime minister would then be more confident about calling a snap election, since he would have a stronger position to negotiate seat allocations and simply win more at the polls.

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