What direction now, Umno?

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  • Thursday, 07 Nov 2013

Muhyiddin and Najib talk to the press after they were returned unopposed in the Umno elections in October

Perhaps the post-GE13 fatigue isn’t over yet; perhaps people are more focused on getting on with their respective lives; or perhaps things haven’t changed, but attentions have merely shifted for the time being: the AG Report 2012, Budget 2014, crime.

Be that as it may, some recent events deserve our special attention, namely the Umno polls and the Sungai Limau by-election. These may indicate which way things are shifting for the new few quarters in our political calendar.

As we have already seen, the Umno president and deputy president were returned unopposed, while in their vice-presidential race Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal were returned rather comfortably whereas Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein struggled to keep his post.

Umno’s dabbling with the so-called “electoral college” system, while not as democratic as PKR’s direct election, was “moderate” Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s attempt at transforming his party.

Even so, it created an uneasy afterglow especially for Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir who, despite winning the popular vote (sounds familiar…), found the third position just out of his reach.

For some political observers, Mukhriz’s unsuccessful attempt at dislodging Hishammuddin marked the most visible beginning of the end for the Mahathirist faction.

The abysmal showing of Mahathir loyalist Tan Sri Sanusi Junid’s son, Akramsyah, in the Umno Youth race supplemented this view. 

The return of Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil as Women’s chief was also another clear indicator that former Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s grip was being forced open as he had indirectly advised her in Feb 2012 to step down “if she loved the party”, in connection with the national feedlot centre controversy.

As a brief aside, the loss of moderate Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah - both in Temerloh in GE13 and the Umno polls, as well as in the Supreme Council race - is a major dent in Najib’s ship of “moderation”. But perhaps it is an article for another week.

All in all, the Umno polls presented a firm case for the argument that Najib was closing the door on the era of Mahathir as a powerbroker in the race-based party.

Moving forward to the recently-concluded Sungai Limau by-election, we can observe similar patterns that indicate the Najib and anti-Mahathir faction in Umno as having clearly gained the upper hand. 

From the start there were calls for the by-election, set in a seat which PAS has served uninterruptedly for five terms, to not be framed as a referendum on Mukhriz’s leadership as Menteri Besar.

Barisan Nasional (mostly Umno) leaders quickly spun the loss as a psychological victory, having reduced the GE13 PAS majority by half. 

Yet when one looks at past results, the 1000-odd majority victory margin in this by-election was also what Allahyarham Datuk Seri Azizan garnered in 2004’s GE11, which many consider the nadir years when then-PM Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won a handsome two-thirds majority in Parliament and nearly wiped out the Federal Opposition.

In other words, despite the affable Mukhriz’s constant presence in Sg Limau, and despite all the pledges, handouts, and giveaways to various segments and groups, the rejection of Barisan by Sg Limau voters is very, very real and rather unlikely to be changed come GE14.

Yet if there’s any soul-searching to be done, Barisan (mostly Umno) will not say it publicly. I mean, if Dr Mahathir’s calls for Umno to do some introspection, to change itself in order to attract the young, and to cast aside money politics were all ignored… Well, you finish that sentence.

If Najib had closed the door on Mahathirism after the Umno polls, one can surmise that after Sg Limau he had practically locked and latched it too.

And now, let’s pay close attention to Najib’s - or Mahathir’s - next move.

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