By Hadi Azmi and Muzliza Mustafa
Members of Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party want to hold national elections sooner than scheduled to capitalize on its emphatic win in state polls in Melaka over the weekend, the party’s deputy president said.
Najib Razak, the disgraced former prime minister who was implicated in a massive corruption scandal while in power, led the campaign in Melaka for his United Malays National Organization, Malaysia’s oldest political party. UMNO’s sweeping victory in the state legislative election may signal his political comeback ahead of the 2023 general election, analysts said.
Mohamad Hasan, the party’s deputy president, said he told Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob that an early election would give the party the best chance of winning, based on public opinion toward the coalition it leads.
“I spoke with the prime minister last night that we need to consider bringing forward the 15th General Election,” Hasan told reporters during a Sunday event, adding that he would hold elections “tomorrow” if he could.
The victory of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition, he said, was a clear sign of people’s desire for a stable government. Slightly more than 65 percent of the electorate turned out for the vote.
“That is the signal I am reading. I am thankful for the win, but it is great trust placed on BN so that the new Melaka state government will practice good governance,” Hasan said.
Ismail Sabri, an UMNO man, came to power in August to form Malaysia’s second unelected government since the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which was elected in 2018, collapsed in February 2020 because of infighting.
The Barisan coalition gained a two-thirds majority in the Melaka poll, winning 21 of the 28 seats in the state legislature. UMNO won 18 of those 21 seats, with allies the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian India Congress winning two and one, respectively.
Sulaiman Md. Ali was reappointed as Melaka state’s chief minister after the vote. The election took place after four lawmakers – including two from UMNO – pulled support, leaving Sulaiman without majority backing and leading state Gov. Ali Rustam to dissolve the assembly and call for fresh polls.
Najib ended up overseeing the Melaka campaign because UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had been out of the country undergoing medical treatment. Zahid returned prior to the vote and joined other UMNO leaders in the state to celebrate its victories.
Meanwhile, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition took a drubbing in the state election, winning only five seats. The People’s Justice Party, which is led by Anwar Ibrahim and anchors the coalition was obliterated in Melaka. It lost in all 11 seats it contested there.
Anwar decided to field two of the four disgruntled assemblymen, who had been sacked from UMNO, as the coalition’s candidates despite strong protests from grassroots members.
The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which supports UMNO at the federal level but ran against it in the Melaka poll, won only two of the 28 seats it contested. Both those were won by Bersatu, the party led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Bersatu, which anchors the Perikatan coalition, was formed as a UMNO splinter party in 2016 by elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin.
Najib, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being convicted on charges related to the 1MDB financial scandal, sounded elated by the victory in a post on his Facebook page. He is appealing the conviction.
“The people have spoken and made a decision. They have sent a clear message,” he wrote.
Campaign restrictions related to COVID-19 and poor turnout affected Pakatan’s results, according to Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political analyst at International Islamic University Malaysia.
“[Pakatan Harapan] depends on its ability to manipulate issues that are often conveyed in big rallies. That factor was missing because of the restrictions,” Tunku Mohar told BenarNews.
UMNO has proven that it is still number one among voters from Malaysia’s ethnic Malay majority and does not need Muhyiddin’s party, Bersatu, to win an election, according to James Chin, an analyst from the University of Tasmania.
“Any reconciliation between PN and UMNO in BN is impossible. The way it works in the government is that there is only one dominant Malay party,” Chin told BenarNews.
“If this is repeated in the upcoming general election with Bersatu only winning a handful of seats, they will have to go back to UMNO,” Chin said.
Muhyiddin dismissed any talk of Bersatu folding back into UMNO.
“That will never happen,” he said on Saturday.
Pact on future general election
Despite calls from UMNO officials for early elections, the government is bound by an agreement signed with the opposition bloc that such a vote would not be called before July 31, 2022. This provision was included to allow for the country’s political climate to cool off and stabilize after Muhyiddin’s contentious 18-month administration.
Meanwhile, Malaysian political analyst Wong Chin Huat told BenarNews that some UMNO and Pakatan members are eager to do away with the agreement they signed in September. The agreement stipulates that the opposition will not block passing the budget lest the agreement be rendered null and void.
“There are people on both sides who want to kill the agreement. If they vote to reject the 2022 Budget in the committee level, that will start the fight over the agreement,” Wong said.
Wong also said that it was unfavorable for Ismail Sabri to call for an early election because while he is the prime minister, he is merely a vice president in UMNO and has no power to select candidates for elections.
“If he is smart, he would not cave in for an early election. That would likely spell the end of his premiership, because Zahid would control the list of candidates and Najib would likely be the 10th prime minister,” Wong said.
Tunku Mohar agreed with Wong that Najib could return as the party’s next prime ministerial hopeful.
“Cannot rule this out. But he has first to convince UMNO’s grassroots leaders that he’s clean and isn’t guilty of the charges against him. I think although he’s popular within the party, the leaders are divided on having him to lead the party’s challenge in the next elections,” Tunku Mohar said.
Since leaving office, Najib was convicted of seven counts including money laundering linked to SRC International, a subsidiary of 1MDB. He is standing trial on 25 counts including abuse of power and money laundering connected to 2.3 billion ringgit ($550 million) that went missing from 1MDB and could face trials on 10 additional charges.