Tensions Rise Within Biggest Party in Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition Over Snap Polls

BenarNews staff – Kuala Lumpur and Washington
Tensions Rise Within Biggest Party in Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition Over Snap Polls UMNO President Zahid Hamidi (center) and officials from the party and other parties stand for Malaysia’s national anthem during the opening of the UMNO General Assembly at the Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 7, 2019.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Updated at 8:57 p.m. ET on 2021-01-08

The largest party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition is divided over calling for snap polls – exposing a rift between a faction that wants to break with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s alliance and one urging caution amid a worrying surge in coronavirus cases.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) will vote later this month on whether to press for general elections before March 31, “so that a new mandate can be given to the people,” the party said in a statement after a supreme council meeting on Wednesday. 

On Jan. 3, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called for early polls, nearly three months after the party threatened to quit Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition. He said Malaysians wanted to see UMNO and its Barisan Nasional bloc back in power again.

“GE-15 must be immediately held. Use the new SOP for the next general election,” Zahid said, referring to the 15th general election and standard operating procedures for participation at public events during the pandemic, such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks.

“We know that COVID-19 is still here and must be avoided, but we must follow the SOP,” he said.

Since then, though, a trio of senior UMNO members have said that calling for national elections during a pandemic – especially when Malaysia is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases – is a bad idea.

On Friday, Khairy Jamaluddin, who is Science, Technology and Innovation minister, said that even the party’s grassroots didn’t want an election at this time, a claim that another UMNO ministerial colleague of his made earlier in the week.

That colleague, Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa, was sacked by UMNO from his post as Barisan’s secretary general on Tuesday, for not being on board with the idea of calling for elections during a pandemic.

On Friday, health authorities reported the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths – 16 – since the outbreak began, and warned that Malaysia could see the daily number of new cases hit 5,000 in April, at the current infection rate. The country has recorded a total of 131,108 cases and 537 coronavirus deaths to date.

‘Huge risk to public health’

After ruling the country for decades, UMNO and its Barisan Nasional bloc crashed out in a historic election in 2018. They came back to power last year as partners in an unelected coalition, after the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) government collapsed due to a power struggle.

But relations between UMNO and its coalition ally, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party, have been frosty, because UMNO feels it has not reaped the rewards of holding the most parliamentary seats in the alliance.

Zahid said on Sunday at an UMNO divisional meeting that “more than 30 countries” had held general elections during the pandemic.

“Why are we afraid of holding a general election during the pandemic? More than 30 countries have already done so. Why is Malaysia so afraid?” he asked.

Khairy on Friday addressed his party president’s comments but didn’t mention him by name.

“There are some politicians who demand for elections to be held and I think this is an irresponsible stand. Their argument is that elections were held in Singapore and New Zealand. I think we cannot make a comparison to such countries because they are smaller than us,” Khairy told a press conference.

“Those calling for [a general election] before the pandemic is brought under control are irresponsible. Don’t be selfish,” Khairy said on Twitter.

Sabah poll lesson

COVID-19 health and safety protocols will not be followed if an election is held, Khairy said, referring to Zahid’s comment that polls could take place with the coronavirus “standard operating procedure” in place.

“[F]rom the Standard Operating Procedure point, we can see clearly from the Sabah state election that people don’t abide by the SOP, especially the politicians,” Khairy said, referring to safety restrictions such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks.

He was also referring to September’s state legislative election in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo that led to a huge spike in coronavirus cases after the country had reduced new infections.

“[U]nrestricted campaigning in September’s Sabah state election caused Malaysia’s largest spike in coronavirus cases to date, which the government has yet to effectively contain,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a mid-December analysis.

Just a few days before the Sept. 26 election, the country reported a little more than 10,000 coronavirus cases. That number has since ballooned to more than 130,000.

‘Hunger for power’

How UMNO will react to Khairy’s comments has yet to be seen, but the party made it clear earlier that it wouldn’t brook disagreement with the party line, when it fired member and minister Musa from a key post in the Barisan bloc.

Barisan comprises UMNO, the Malaysian Indian Congress, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah. UMNO anchored ruling coalitions for 61 years until it lost the 2018 general election.

UMNO-Barisan was defeated in the May 2018 polls by the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, which swept into power on a platform to rid the government of corruption after Prime Minister Najib Razak was implicated in a financial scandal over the theft of billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB.

Last July, Najib was convicted of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering in a case linked to the scandal, and is now on trial in another corruption case tied to the 1MDB affair.

UMNO regained power last March by supporting a new alliance, Perikatan Nasional, created by Muhyiddin and his Bersatu party. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak are among the other parties in Perikatan.

For Musa, UMNO president Zahid’s push to break with Perikatan and call for general elections smacks of selfishness.

“Urging for elections when the people and the country are struggling with COVID-19, floods and the economy, clearly reflects not only irresponsibility but demonstrates the hunger for power and is not sensitive to the suffering of the people. That is not the will of the grassroots,” Musa said via Twitter on Thursday.

‘People get nauseous’

Meanwhile, senior UMNO member and Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that senior party members were in charge of crucial ministries like defense, health and science, all of which play an important part in combatting the coronavirus pandemic.

“[We] are still at war with COVID-19. Daily cases are still high. The country is also being hit by floods. UMNO is being given the opportunity to prove to the people that our leaders are caring, capable, and determined to manage the crisis and focus on the interests of the people,” Hishammuddin said in a blog post on Wednesday.

He also noted that the party needed to decide carefully which other parties it should cooperate with, because a slam-dunk victory for Barisan isn’t a guarantee if and when elections are called.

“UMNO should take note that we [BN] only won 79 seats in GE-14 out of the 133 seats we won in GE-13. This means we lost 54 seats. We must repent from this experience,” Hishammuddin wrote.

“We should be committed in our efforts to provide the best service to the people. …Not endless power-grabbing politics. [Or] In the end, the people get nauseous and lose confidence.”

Muzliza Mustafa and Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur and Shailaja Neelakantan and Nani Yusof in Washington collaborated on this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.