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Stuck in passenger seat, Umno in danger of wipeout at next polls

Observers see the party that once ruled Malaysia for more than six decades in further decline.

3 minute read
Once the 'big brother' in government, Umno is heading for a wipeout at the next general election.
Once the 'big brother' in government, Umno is heading for a wipeout at the next general election.

A recent campaign launched by PKR to ensure that its president Anwar Ibrahim remains prime minister after the 16th general election has ruffled feathers in Umno, with questions raised about the future of the Malay party that was once the political launch pad for all prime ministers.

Observers and former party leaders believe that PKR's bid to dominate the government does not bode well for Umno.

Umno, considered the "big brother" during its six-decade run in power, has been seen as a mere "passenger" under the Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led government since ceding its 26 seats to the coalition to form the government in the last general election.

Former Penang Barisan Nasional (BN) executive secretary Azizi Safar said PKR's move was not surprising as the party was formed with the main objective of "sinking" Umno.

"This is a historical fact," Azizi, who is still an Umno member, told MalaysiaNow.

"If PKR wants to be the main political party in the country, there is no room for Umno to rise again as a major political force if it is still a passenger on the 'PH ship'," he added, referring to the so-called unity government – the result of a political cooperation forged after the 15th general election, when BN agreed to support Anwar as prime minister following a hung parliament.

The move by BN chairman and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to support Anwar gave the latter a lifeline and ended his long quest for the top office.

At PKR's special convention last Sunday, held in conjunction with its 25th anniversary, deputy president Rafizi Ramli unveiled the party's plan to maintain Anwar as prime minister after the next general election.

"From today, the party's top leadership at all levels will be dispatched to the states and then to the branches to demonstrate our readiness for GE16," he said.

"We hope that the preparations made two years before will ensure that Anwar remains prime minister after GE16."

Anwar, on the other hand, said PKR should develop into a "political giant" despite holding only 31 of PH's 82 seats in the Dewan Rakyat.

Support for Umno, the lynchpin of BN when the coalition ruled with a two-thirds majority, has been on a steady decline since 1999, although it recovered briefly in 2004 in the first election called by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi a few months after he succeeded Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In 2008, however, Umno received a blow from the PAS-PKR-DAP alliance known as Pakatan Rakyat, a trend that was repeated in 2013 and continued until 2018 when the party was ousted from power.

In the 2022 general election, the rejection of Malay voters led to Umno's worst ever defeat, with the party winning only 26 seats.

The misfortune was repeated in last year's elections in the states of Penang, Selangor, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Terengganu and Kelantan, where Umno won only 19 of the 108 seats it contested.

Isham Jalil
Isham Jalil

Former Umno spokesman Isham Jalil, who has been increasingly vocal since his dismissal from the party last December, said Umno would lose all of its parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia if it continued its collaboration with PH.

"If and when this happens, Umno will become just a satellite party of PH and DAP and will have to rely on the support of non-Malays to retain its relevance as a political party.

"The original Umno grassroots do not follow Zahid’s Umno," Isham, a loyalist of former prime minister Najib Razak, told MalaysiaNow.

So what options remain for Umno?

"Umno has to work with parties that are similar to it, like Perikatan Nasional. To continue with PH will be difficult because the Malays will never support DAP," said Ahmad Atory Hussain, a veteran commentator on Malay politics, alluding to DAP's dominance in PH.

Azizi meanwhile expects the number of seats Umno is fighting for to shrink even more if it remains with PH.

"This will reduce Umno's chances of winning more seats."

For Isham, not much can be done to help his former party as long as it is with PH.

"It will no longer be a party for the Malay struggle as it was originally, but a supporter of DAP and PKR," he added.