Malaysia’s UMNO to Split from Ruling Coalition in Next General Election

Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-03-04
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Malaysia’s UMNO to Split from Ruling Coalition in Next General Election Supporters of the United Malays National Organization hold signs during the party’s 71st anniversary celebration at Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur, May 11, 2017.
AFP

Malaysia’s dominant political force, UMNO, will leave the ruling coalition in the next election, the party announced Thursday, leaving embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in search of new partners and possibly delaying polls, analysts told BenarNews.

The United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the ruling bloc, will stay in the alliance until parliament is dissolved, Ahmad Maslan, UMNO’s secretary-general said in a statement.

“There will be no cooperation with PPBM in the 15th general election,” Maslan said, using the Malay acronym for Muhyiddin’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu. UMNO has always stuck to the concept of honesty and sincerity in a political alliance, Maslan said.

“Therefore, this decision was arrived at after taking into account views of the grassroots and considering carefully the pros and cons of being in the government when the people are facing the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

After a high-level meeting attended by Muhyiddin, Bersatu responded to UMNO’s announcement.

“Bersatu takes seriously the letter sent by the UMNO president dated Feb. 26, 2021, as it has huge implications on the future cooperation between UMNO, Bersatu and Perikatan Nasional,” Bersatu said in a statement.

“About this matter, Bersatu has decided to keep focusing on developing cooperation with allies in Perikatan Nasional, which are PAS, STAR, SAPP and Gerakan, based on a struggle that is sincere and honest for the people in order to win the coming general elections.”

The statement was alluding to other parties in the ruling Perikatan Nasional bloc, of which the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is the third largest, after UMNO and Bersatu.

UMNO and Bersatu officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews.

Muhyiddin ‘will delay election’

UMNO’s announcement was not a surprise given that its alliance with Bersatu has been rocky for months, according to observers.

UMNO feels it has not reaped the rewards of holding the most parliamentary seats in the ruling coalition, said political analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar. Still, Malaysia’s oldest political party may have erred in pulling out of the alliance with Muhyiddin for the next election.

“I think Muhyiddin will delay the general election until he is assured that he can still become the PM,” Mokhtar, who teaches at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews.

Muhyiddin has repeatedly said he would advise the king to dissolve parliament and hold elections when the pandemic ends.

Critics had slammed him for advising the king to declare a nationwide emergency in January. They said the PM merely wanted to cling to power amid infighting in his coalition.

Mokhtar said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some horse-trading as Muhyiddin looks for ways to delay the polls.

In fact on Sunday, two MPs quit the opposition People's Justice Party and pledged support for Muhyiddin's Perikatan. Some UMNO lawmakers may follow suit as well, Mokhtar said.

“MPs switching sides is a probable scenario. The two engineers – Azmin [Ali] and Hamzah [Zainudin] – seem to be good at this,” the analyst said, referring to two key figures in Muhyiddin’s party.

“So Muhyiddin will either extend the emergency, which seems unlikely, or by getting more MPs to switch to his side he will use the argument of a stable government to stay in power long enough … until he thinks that he can win the next election.”

UMNO, Bersatu ‘wooing PAS’

Not everyone in UMNO is on board with its decision to split from Bersatu.

Annuar Musa, a minister and senior member of UMNO, told BenarNews this week that for the party to be in power it would need to ally itself with the Islamic party PAS and Bersatu.

“It is simple. I am not convinced that we have other formulas to remain in power. In my opinion UMNO needs to be on a winning team and it has no other option. To lose or become the opposition is not an option for UMNO,” Musa told BenarNews.

“All three have to be together. That is what I have been trying to say. PAS has its own grassroots, UMNO too. Without PAS, UMNO cannot stand alone and be in power. Bersatu also has its own strength. So if all three combined, we could provide more stability then other political parties.”

Musa expressed confidence that Muhyiddin would be true to his word and advise the king to call general elections when the pandemic is over.

However, by itself, Bersatu is a spent force, according to analyst Oh Ei Sun.

“I have never believed that Muhyiddin would hold elections early, as his party Bersatu needs time to build up a support base,” Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews.

“The Pakatan voters who voted for many Bersatu MPs would no longer support Bersatu, while UMNO and PAS retain ironclad holds on the conservative Malay vote. So, who are Bersatu’s niche voters?”

Oh was referring to how Bersatu brought about the collapse of the earlier Pakatan Harapan government, which came to power after a stunning upset in 2018.

Meanwhile, the PAS party has been trying to play peacemaker between UNMO and Bersatu in recent months.

“At the moment, it would appear that Bersatu has the upper hand in wooing PAS, as an avalanche of PAS-friendly policies have been either adopted or proposed in rapid succession. PAS has a single-minded ultimate goal of turning the country into a full-fledged theocracy,” analyst Oh said.

“As it [PAS] holds a significant number of MPs, it welcomes UMNO and Bersatu to vehemently compete with each other to push policies that are conducive to PAS’s unwavering theocratic goal. As the religious brinksmanship’s dust settles in the not so distant future, PAS will make its opportunistic choice between the two.”

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