Playing the long political game

Muhyiddin gesturing to reporters as he arrives to chair the Bersatu supreme council meeting. — Bernama

IT was not a tit for tat move when Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s supreme council responded to Umno’s decision to cut ties with the party in GE15.

Bersatu’s statement on Thursday was “tidak keras” (not hard-hitting), said Universiti Teknologi Malaysia political analyst Dr Mazlan Ali.

Bersatu, which Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin leads, met earlier in the week to discuss a letter signed by Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi stating that the party’s supreme council had decided on Feb 19 not to cooperate with Bersatu in the next general election.

The letter dated Feb 26 and addressed to Muhyiddin as Bersatu president and chairman of the Perikatan Nasional coalition also stated that Umno would continue to support the Perikatan government until Parliament is dissolved.

In a statement issued after Bersatu’s supreme council met, party secretary-general Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin noted that the party viewed the Umno president’s letter “seriously”.

Hamzah also said that Bersatu would remain focused on strengthening cooperation with the Perikatan coalition members – PAS, Sabah STAR, Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) and Gerakan.

“The Bersatu statement is not hard-hitting because Bersatu is leading a government with a slim majority. Bersatu knows that some Umno MPs could, at any time, withdraw their support for Muhyiddin as Prime Minister, ” Mazlan said.

“If Bersatu responded strongly, the Perikatan government could fall, as Umno could respond even more strongly in turn, perhaps by deciding to work with Pakatan Harapan.

“The Bersatu response was made to maintain the government.”

Mazlan noted that Umno’s assurance that it will remain with the Perikatan government until Parliament is dissolved must have relieved Bersatu.

“Umno will only cut ties with Bersatu in GE15, and we don’t know when that will happen, ” he said.

When two Umno MPs – Padang Rengas MP Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz and Machang MP Datuk Ahmad Jazlan Yaakub – withdrew their support for Muhyiddin, the Perikatan government was left with 109 MPs while the Opposition had 108 MPs. But after two PKR MPs – Tebrau MP Steven Choong and Julau MP Larry Sng – crossed over to support the Perikatan government, Muhyiddin now has 111 MPs and the Opposition has 106 while three MPs – Nazri, Ahmad Jazlan and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah (Umno’s Gua Musang MP) – are seen as neutral.

Research firm Ilham Centre’s Prof Hamidin Abdul Hamid contended that Bersatu had expected the Umno decision.

“To some extent, that is what they want. They don’t want Umno to overshadow it (in the coalition), ” he said.

Bersatu now has a clear path to work with PAS and create good momentum to win Malay voters.

“Now the blame will not be laid on Bersatu but will point to Umno. It is Umno that is saying that it is not going to work with Bersatu (in a Malay electoral pact) – that is how some will perceive it, ” he said.

Prof Hamidin believes that Bersatu issued a neutral response because of the situation’s fluidity. Bersatu could perhaps work through Barisan Nasional to reduce clashes among Perikatan coalition members in some electoral seats in GE15.

He also said Muhyiddin and his party are aware of the possibilities arising from a possible Umno split.

“The longer Muhyiddin prolongs the game, the more time there is for the Umno split to happen, and some of the party leaders could then join Bersatu, ” he said.

According to Prof Hamidin, Umno’s challenge is to rip the bandaid off now: “Umno has to ditch those leaders who are not with them now. The leaders have to tell the Umno faction supporting Bersatu to get out of the party rather than deal with them later, ” he said.

However, it was not easy for Umno to do this.

“The problem is the split in Umno is too big. It will give Umno big trouble facing GE15.

“The split is more about Umno MPs rather than the party. But these MPs are tied to party members, ” he said, adding that about 25% to 30% of the party’s remaining 35 MPs are not behind Umno’s president.

Mazlan feels that the anti-Bersatu faction in Umno (consisting of Zahid, former Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan) is stronger than the pro-Bersatu faction, led by Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa. He also pointed out that most Umno divisions support the decision not to cooperate with Bersatu in GE15.

For the anti-Bersatu faction, it is a matter of Umno’s survival, according to Mazlan.

“What happened in the 2020 Sabah polls will happen to Umno (in GE15 if it remains with Bersatu). Umno controlled Sabah from 1994 to 2018, but when it won in the 2020 state election, Bersatu got the chief minister post.

“Umno wants to return to being a dominant party (with the PM post under it) like it was before its defeat in GE14 in 2018, ” he said.

Bersatu politician Datuk Wan Mohd Shahrir Wan Abd Jalil believes Bersatu took a softer approach because Umno is not a solid party.

“There are so many camps in Umno, and we don’t know which will eventually lead the party. There are two or three clusters which might dispose of Zahid, and the person who takes over might be more amicable to Bersatu, ” he said.

Mazlan agreed, saying that there is a possibility that Umno might reverse its decision to ditch Bersatu in GE15 if the party’s leadership changed and the new leader is more mesra (friendly) to Bersatu.

Knowing Muhyiddin, said Wan Mohd Shahrir, the Bersatu president is playing a long game to tire Umno out with a political tug of war.

Perhaps Bersatu might take sterner action against Umno, but it is a matter of time, he said.

“There’s a possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle – no more Umno representatives in the Cabinet or in GLCs (government-linked companies), ” he pointed out.

Now that would be a Bersatu tit for tat response to Umno’s decision to break with it for GE15.

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