UMNO regains strength but PM candidate still up in the air

Suganya Lingan and Noah Lee
2022.03.22
Kuala Lumpur
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UMNO regains strength but PM candidate still up in the air Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who serves as an UMNO vice president (left); Mohamad Hasan, deputy president; Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president; and former Prime Minister Najib Razak enter the UMNO General Assembly official opening at the Kuala Lumpur World Trade Center, March 18, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

After winning two state elections in five months, UMNO is feeling confident heading into the next general election – the first following its historic defeat in 2018.

But analysts say the United Malays National Organization party has no clear prime minister candidate if snap polls are called.

Possible candidates include Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 69, the UMNO party president who has corruption cases against him in court; and his deputy, Mohamad Hasan, 65, who is considered to be a “safe” choice. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s name continues to surface in discussions, provided he manages to overturn corruption convictions and wriggle out of cases against him.

“UMNO has been more rhetoric than contents and will remain to be so. That culture has been deeply ingrained,” said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political analyst at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“My guess, but I may be wrong, if UMNO wins big, its president, Zahid Hamidi, will try to nominate himself as the prime minister candidate and he will claim that his court cases were politically motivated. The only reason he could not do it now is because UMNO does not have the majority.”

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the prime minister and an UMNO vice president, is on a list of potential candidates but is not a first or even second choice for many party members, several analysts have said.

Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said he thinks Mohamad Hasan, fondly known as Tok Mat among UMNO members, will be a safe choice until Zahid or Najib Razak are cleared of the criminal allegations against them.

“Tok Mat or some other younger leaders who are loyal,” said Oh about a potential candidate.

While agreeing that Tok Mat is a possible choice, University of Tasmania Professor of Asian Studies professor James Chin said that he would not “make it” as others are waiting for the opportunity to lead.

“The others are not showing their hands, but they are warlords. Tok Mat is not a warlord so he has to depend on strong support from Najib and Zahid to become the prime minister,” he said, noting Najib and Zahid have strong grassroots support despite their current court cases.

Tok Mat was a banker who later moved into the corporate sector before getting into politics full time. He joined UMNO in 2004 and had served as the head of government in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan for three terms. He remains popular in his hometown where he serves as a state assemblyman.

Ismail Sabri, too, is considered a safe choice by analysts.

Ismail Sabri started his career as a lawyer before becoming a public servant in several departments over the years. He has held several ministerial posts since 2008 and became the prime minister in 2021 at a time when the ruling coalition needed a clean politician to be the face of the government.

‘Government, party need alignment’

During the UMNO general assembly held over the weekend, Zahid had said the party supported Ismail Sabri as the prime minister and stressed the importance of an alignment with the government. He also said he was not jealous of the prime minister, noting he nominated Ismail Sabri in the first place.

“Bossku (Najib Razak) and I do not care because we know blessings do not come at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Who knows if Tok Mat’s time will come in GE16?” he said during his closing speech at the assembly referring not to the upcoming election, but the one after that.

Zahid made no mention of any plans to seek the prime minister’s office while members decided that party elections would be held only after the general election.

Tunku Mohar said this was part of a strategy to keep Zahid as UMNO leader.

“The reason the current excos asked for postponement of party elections is to ensure Zahid is still the president when general election is called. Then, Zahid can choose his loyalists to be candidates and weaken the support bases of other leaders, Tunku Mohar said referring to executive committee members.

“This is the playbook he’s using at the moment.”

Analyst Chin, meanwhile, noted that Zahid is embroiled in a case linked to money laundering and corruption charges involving millions of dollars tied to his charitable foundation. Likewise Najib has been unable to shake off his conviction in a 1Malaysia Development Berhad-subsidiary trial, making it unlikely the king would allow either to lead the country.

“That’s why the court cluster is fighting so hard to get rid of all these legal problems so they can pursue their political careers,” he said, referring to UMNO leaders who are fighting court cases.

Even as he appeals his conviction and 12-year sentence and stands trial on other charges linked to the 1MDB financial scandal where prosecutors allege U.S. $4.5 billion was stolen from the state development fund, Najib remains popular among UMNO voters.

Despite that popularity, Chin, does not think Najib will serve as prime minister again.

“The last hurdle is actually the king, not so much the party. The party of course can submit its names but ultimately it is up to the king and there’s no way the king will risk Malaysia’s reputation by appointing somebody with outstanding court cases and an outstanding conviction to be a prime minister,” Chin said.

“It’s just not possible.”

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