Questions have arisen in the aftermath of the opposition’s defeat at the Melaka and Johor elections about the ability of Malay leaders to stop the advance of the so-called court cluster, led by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former prime minister Najib Razak.
The opposition appears divided and unable to present a strong front ahead of the general election to come, while its leader Anwar Ibrahim proved willing to work with the court cluster as part of attempts to topple former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin in 2020.
The court cluster refers to a group of Umno leaders who are either facing charges in court or have already been convicted.
Najib, the Pekan MP, was found guilty in 2020 of seven counts of corruption involving former 1MDB unit SRC International. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined RM210 million, although he is currently appealing against both conviction and sentence at the Federal Court.
Zahid meanwhile is facing 47 charges of corruption and abuse of power involving funds from charity outfit Yayasan Akal Budi.
MalaysiaNow reported in April last year that Anwar and Zahid had spoken by phone just hours after Zahid’s closing speech at the Umno general assembly, where the latter had sought a mandate for the decision to cut ties with Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Bersatu.
MalaysiaNow also revealed in October 2020 a letter written to Istana Negara by Zahid and Najib to express support for Anwar as prime minister.
Meanwhile, Sabah-based Warisan under the leadership of Shafie Apdal recently announced its willingness to work with Barisan Nasional (BN) which is controlled by Zahid and Najib.
Political analyst Mazlan Ali however said that BN and the court cluster could still be toppled in spite of the opposition’s recent election defeats.
“Only Dr Mahathir Mohamad appears to be weak now, unlike Muhyiddin Yassin,” Mazlan, of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.
“If the opposition unites, Umno can definitely be vanquished.”
He said Umno’s strength lay in the political fatigue of the people, seen in the poor voter turnouts for the state elections in Melaka and Johor.
“Umno itself is not strong,” he added. “It obtained only 35% of the total support.”
Mazlan said that Mahathir, who is now chairman of Pejuang, was facing challenges sparked by the distrust of Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders following his resignation as prime minister in 2020.
Muhyiddin, meanwhile, continued to wield influence although he was not yet able to challenge Umno, he said.
Ahmad Atory Hussain of Universiti Sains Malaysia said if the Melaka and Johor polls were used as a yardstick, the 15th general election would be won by BN.
“Any alternative to the court cluster would be Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan, or Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein,” he said.
“PN and Pejuang could give BN a run for its money, but it would be difficult for them to win and then rule, given the lack of unity seen at the 14th general election.”
At the moment, though, neither Ismail, Mohamad nor Hishammuddin control Umno and BN, which makes it difficult for any of them to be seen as a viable alternative.
Atory added that PN and Pejuang with their message of integrity and the fight against corruption were incapable of winning the support of the Malays whom he said were not bothered by such issues to begin with.
Whether the situation will continue until the 15th general election, however, is anyone’s guess if the anti-party hopping law is enacted in Parliament.
“The voters feel that there is no point to voting if the candidates ultimately jump ship,” Mazlan said.
“But we will see what happens in Parliament. Maybe after that, people will be interested in going out to vote again.”
Given the strong influence of Umno and the court cluster over the country’s political party system, he said, it would be difficult for anyone outside of BN to topple them.
Adding that the court cluster had nearly unanimous support from division and branch leaders, he said it also had strategies and tactics as well as an abundance of funds at its disposal.
“This will be hard for other parties to match at the general election,” he said. “The three nominated leaders will form a new line-up.”
Analysts previously predicted that Ismail would challenge Zahid at the Umno elections which must be held by December this year.
Mohamad meanwhile is seen as an ally to Zahid and Najib.
Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said the rise of Muhyiddin and Ismail as prime ministers had given hope to senior leaders from other parties who were now beginning to eye the post as well.
Nevertheless, he said it would be difficult to find a progressive or reformist leader to challenge the court cluster.
“I don’t think we are looking at progressive or reformist leaders,” he said to MalaysiaNow. “That is because the socioeconomic conditions of the country are not doing well.
“What is the main allure of the court cluster? As we saw from Bossku, it’s basically that in these times of difficulty, I will be there to take care of you, to give assistance.
“Granted, some of this assistance comes from your own pockets. But still, it’s the idea that we will take care of you and that you have nothing to fear, come what may.”
Anyone looking to replace the court cluster must possess the same appeal, he said, adding that promises of a reformist and progressive nature would not be enough to win voters over as such vows were long-term.
“People cannot wait,” he said. “People want you to take care of them in the short run.”
Within Umno, he said, Hishammuddin and Khairy Jamaluddin had potential although neither possessed the same draw as the court cluster.
“Hishammuddin is not known for having the most brilliant of policies,” he said. “Khairy has technocratised himself as a Covid fighter, but what about livelihoods?
“In a sense, you cannot resist the court cluster because of the socioeconomic predicament.”