In Malaysian politics, when you want to revamp the party, people will say need to kill the “Lalang dan langau” or in English, weeds and locusts. In other words, you have to go deep and clear out all the nasty things.
This is what happened to Umno, Malaysia’s longest ruling party (1957-2018) which is trying to make a comeback on Nov. 19, Malaysia’s 15th General Election.
When party president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, announced the Umno candidates before nomination day, it sent shock waves throughout the party.
Some of the party’s “warlords” and incumbent Members of Parliament (MPs) were dropped as candidates.
At least another half a dozen UMNO leaders who were expected to stand under the Barisan Nasional coalition were also dropped.
Influence of the 'warlords'
Warlords are usually Umno divisional chiefs who control a bloc of votes and are deemed essential to the party machinery.
They are supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from the party president as they can “get things done” and deliver bloc votes during internal party elections, and more importantly, can win at general elections easily.
So what is Zahid’s game plan? Simple, Zahid, who is facing several corruption charges, must ensure that BN wins GE15, alone or in a new coalition. More importantly, he would like to end up as PM or be in a position to tell the new PM what to do.
There are some who allege that this is the only way for Zahid to escape his legal troubles, and possibly secure a pardon for his ally Najib Razak as well. If Umno is not part of the new government after GE15, that may be much less likely.
All those dropped by Zahid are his party critics, who have openly expressed the hope that Umno will be led by someone else or someone who does not have ongoing corruption trials. By getting rid of them, Zahid will not have to worry about an internal party challenge after GE15.
Zahid’s supporters will of course tell you that it is the party president’s prerogative when it comes to candidates. Some of his advisors say Umno is hoping to do an “LDP repeat”.
LDP refers to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan. LDP was a long-serving ruling party in Japan like Umno. In 2009, LDP lost power when corruption scandals cost the general elections held that year. Yet barely three years later, LDP regained the office of the PM when the party won the 2012 Japanese general election.
Thus, you can see the parallel. Umno has spent 2018 to 2021 without holding the PM’s office. Now in 2022, it's time for Umno to be back in the PM’s office.
I personally don’t buy the LDP analogy -- LDP cleared all the corrupt LDP leaders before they came back into power. Can the same be said for Umno?
The analogy I prefer is Marie Kondo’s konmari method of decluttering. Under this method, you only keep things that bring you “joy”.
Thus, Zahid is only keeping candidates that will bring him “joy”, or in other words, following him blindly. If BN wins big, he needs them to help him push himself into the office of the PM. You can’t do that with members who don’t bring you “joy”.
On top of getting rid of selected warlords, Zahid also did things that annoyed BN component parties.
Rumblings within Barisan Nasional
MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), one of the original founders of BN, was only allocated 10 seats, including several the party did not want because they were deemed "unwinnable".
To add insult to injury, Zahid also allocated three seats to Indian-based “Friends of BN” parties -- Makkal Sakthi Party’s (MMSP), Indian Progressive Front (IPF) and Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (MIMC).
The nightmare scenario of MIC, of course, is that one of these three will win and thus be eligible to join BN formally. This will considerably weaken the political leverage of MIC, since it is now the only Indian-based party in the BN.
If you have more than one Indian-based party in the BN, it will be easy to ignore you since the BN leadership can turn to the other Indian party.
After threatening to “sit out” the GE15, MIC said they will, after all, accept the 10 seats given by Zahid. This was a huge loss of “face” to MIC as some say that MIC cannot exist outside BN and is really nothing more than UMNO’s “small” brother.
MCA, on the other hand, was allocated 44 seats. On the surface, this may look like a high number but in reality, more than half are “unwinnable” seats. Even Umno does not believe MCA can deliver more than half of the allocated seats.
Thus the house decluttering has sort of extended to MIC and MCA. Zahid is lining up “yes” men across the BN spectrum.
My argument is that this is perfectly logical because Zahid does not have much choice.
This is because it is the first time in Umno's history that, heading into a GE, Umno’s president is not the incumbent prime minister.
Moreover, this is the first time in Umno’s history that Umno is campaigning without the full power of the government. Umno has previously been accused of making extensive use of the civil service in campaigns.
The final victim of Zahid’s decluttering will be Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the incumbent PM. If Umno wins big, his chances of getting reappointed is zero.
That is how konmari works!
Top image from Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's Facebook page.