The president of Malaysia's longest-ruling party relinquished his duties Tuesday, after 17 of its 54 members of parliament abandoned the party over the last six months in what analysts said showed its failure to adapt to being in the opposition.
UMNO, the acronym for United Malays National Organization, had been Malaysia’s dominant political force since the country gained independence on Aug. 31, 1957.
But it emerged in tatters after elections in May, winning only 54 seats in the nation’s 222-seat parliament in a devastating electoral defeat that saw the four-party Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc take power. Since then, several of UMNO’s top leaders have been investigated for corruption.
“Based on the crisis enveloping the party today, I am making the decision to entrust to the deputy president to carry the duties of the president,” UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said, referring to his deputy, Mohamad Hasan.
“I feel there is a discontent among some UMNO leadership who are worried that they will be pressured, investigated and accused again and again like how I endured,” said Zahid, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia.
Zahid’s statement came a day after lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim-majority nation when she quit as vice president and state chairman of People’s Justice Party (PKR), the leading party in the ruling PH coalition.
Nurul Izzah, 38, is the daughter of PKR president Anwar Ibrahim – who is expected to be Malaysia’s next prime minister – and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the current deputy prime minister.
She did not make clear what triggered her resignation, but local reports said there were signs she may have objected to UMNO bigwigs crossing over to the ruling party.
“Our party was attacked before by defections,” she tweeted on Sunday. “Wouldn’t want that kind of pain and antics upon anyone else. There is no meaning to democracy if Malaysia is governed by elite-based politicking.”
On Sunday, UMNO cancelled its monthly Supreme Council meeting, as party officials reportedly scrambled to deal with the mass exodus and calls for Zahid to resign.
Last week, UMNO’s bloc in Sabah, which claims a 100,000-strong membership, was rocked when more than 30 state leaders and office holders announced that they would leave the party.
UMNO’s Sabah chairman, Hajiji Mohd Noor, said the party includes non-Muslim members and the current Islamist leanings of the UMNO leadership had put the support from that bloc in jeopardy.
On Dec. 8, several UMNO leaders, including Zahid, shared a stage with the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) at a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur to protest the government’s proposal to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination.
“It is for this reason that we have decided to take the initiative to chart our own political future,” Hajiji said during a news conference in the state capital Kota Kinabalu.
‘They will survive’
Speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday, Zahid said he would continue to hold the post of president but without executing any of its duties.
“This decision is a middle ground to save UMNO, especially when there are intentions among members of parliament and division leaders, and also to prevent any more ‘crossings’ and incidents of party hopping,” Zahid said, adding that his deputy would hold full authority “for a period of time.”
Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a professor at the University of Malaya, said that the party would survive the crisis.
“It is a sign of UMNO leaders’ failure to adapt to life as members of the opposition after being accustomed to the trappings of leadership for so long,” he told BenarNews.
“They will survive, but perhaps as a much smaller party,” he said.
All of the country’s prime ministers had been members of UMNO – until the party’s stunning defeat in the last elections ushered in a triumphant political re-entry for Mahathir Mohamad.
Ahmad Marthada, a former academician, said the growing rapport with the conservative Muslim party PAS had played a role in the mass exodus of UMNO members.
“PAS and UMNO are different. They cannot be in a coalition,” Ahmad told BenarNews. “PAS wants an Islamic State with Shariah laws, but not UMNO.”
“UMNO is more towards securing Malay power, not religion,” he said.
Zahid, like former Prime Minister Najib Razak, faces multiple charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering. Several other former officials are also being prosecuted.
Chandra Muzaffar, chairman of the nonprofit foundation Promoting National Unity, said the party had become too closely associated with corruption, as the new government pushed forward in investigating the 1MDB investment fund scandal and other cases.
“More than a lack of direction, it is perhaps the multiple charges of corruption, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, among other instances of power abuse … that have eroded the confidence of these legislators and other UMNO personalities in the party,” he said.
“When the men at the helm of an organization are so badly tainted and tarnished with allegations of crimes of such magnitude, one should not expect the people around them to remain loyal to their authority,” Chandra said in an opinion column published Monday by the Free Malaysia Today.
He said party’s internal hemorrhage could also be linked to the psychological setback inflicted against its leaders after they lost the “perks and privileges of high office” that they used to enjoy when UMNO, the mainstay of the Barisan Nasional coalition, lost power after more than 60 years.
“This is why some of them are keen on getting back to power and are allegedly engaged in maneuvers in that direction,” he said. “It is also said that they and others are also hoping that some deal can be made with individuals in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government that may help to keep UMNO bigwigs out of jail or at least lessen their travails.”