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Damage Control

Date: 13 Dec 1999
Time: 03:13:48


Damage Control In the wake of their election losses, "shell-shocked" UMNO leaders consider the fallout - and the direction their party should take By SANGWON SUH and ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur

Elections are over. Now it's time for some soul-searching - and damage control - for the United Malays National Organization, Malaysia's dominant political party. From Dec. 3 to 6, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was on the resort island of Langkawi with UMNO heavyweights to conduct a postmortem on the results. And for good reason. While the Nov. 29 polls had ended in victory for UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) - the ruling coalition won 148 out of 193 parliamentary seats - for UMNO itself, the outcome was less than sweet. Its share of seats dropped from 94 before the polls to 72. For the first time in history, UMNO's allies outnumber it in Parliament.

Perhaps more crucially, in the Malay-belt states of the rural north, UMNO either lost or scraped by with severely reduced majorities. The opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) not only retained control of Kelantan but wrested Trengganu from BN hands. In Kedah, Mahathir's home state, Pas made significant inroads, winning more parliamentary seats than BN. UMNO has traditionally claimed the mantle of the party for Malay Muslims. But now the rise of Pas is putting that claim, if not under threat, then certainly under pressure. These worries will affect the struggles for top leadership positions next year, when UMNO posts will come up for election. Already, internal campaigning has begun that will change the shape of the party in the coming years.

"UMNO is shell-shocked at the moment," says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. "It has lost the trust and confidence of the Malays. It needs a total reformation and perhaps even restructuring." UMNO's election performance reflects not only on the party but on Mahathir himself. UMNO officials in Trengganu say that the cause of the party's defeat in the state was "federal issues" - a codeword for the "Anwar factor." The sacking and jailing of populist leader Anwar Ibrahim is widely seen as causing the split in the Malay vote. Malay anger was directed at Mahathir over the treatment of his erstwhile deputy - which Pas exploited by targeting the PM in its campaigns. Says Pas vice president Mustafa Ali: "To reject Mahathir was to reject UMNO and BN."

Now the pressure is on Mahathir. On the outside is the opposition alliance - including Pas, the pro-Anwar Parti Keadilan Nasional and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) - which continues to call for reform and change. On the inside are UMNO's Chinese coalition partners, to whom Mahathir is beholden as they delivered the Chinese vote that proved vital to BN's victory. The PM also has to deal with a variety of voices within his own party, including those disgruntled by UMNO's loss of influence and those who feel the party urgently needs to "rejuvenate" and "reinvent" itself. The pressure, says political scientist A.B. Shamsul, is for UMNO to "change substantially, actually reform." Yet there have been few suggestions on how exactly this should happen, and Shamsul doubts UMNO is capable of changing: "They don't know how."

Given the difficulty of balancing all the competing interests, it is perhaps not surprising that, as of Dec. 8, the PM still had not named his cabinet. Mahathir's position is clearly not as secure as before, but few observers foresee a direct challenge against his leadership in the party. One reason is that Mahathir is, well, Mahathir. An inside source notes: "We cannot replace Mahathir because he is the only one who can bring change. He has the moral courage and stature to make the changes. He has also won the election and has been vindicated and can be magnanimous in victory."

Another reason is that there is no other leader with enough backing in the party to go for the top post. "There is no one in sight at the moment," says the source. Some say the reason for Anwar's sacking was that he was planning to make a move for Mahathir's post. What subsequently happened to the former deputy PM will certainly act as a deterrent to any potential challenger.

There will be plenty of action, however, in the second and third tiers of leadership. The post of UMNO deputy president has been vacant ever since Anwar was expelled. Most observers see the current deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as the likely sole candidate for the position. Abdullah headed the BN election machinery in Anwar's home state of Penang, which the coalition retained despite a huge wave of sympathy for Anwar. Abdullah is seen as a moderate, conciliatory figure who appeals to both non-Malays and conservative Muslims.

The only person with the stature to challenge Abdullah for the No.2 spot is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The flamboyant former finance minister, however, failed in his task to reclaim his home state Kelantan from Pas, and many in UMNO consider him more-or-less out of the race. Still, there remains the possibility that the well-connected, well-funded prince will organize a challenge in the next six months.

In the race for the three vice presidents' posts, the main contender is Education Minister Najib Tun Razak, already one of the VPs. He was once considered a candidate for the deputy presidency, but his less-than-convincing election result - he won his seat by just 241 votes - means that he will settle for keeping his present post. The other challengers are Abdul Ghani Othman, chief minister of Johor state, which was swept clean by BN; Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar; and former Perak chief minister Ramli Ngah Talib.

Besides the internal politicking, Mahathir must address a more fundamental concern: which direction UMNO should take. If the party is to woo back the Malay-Muslim voters it lost to Pas, it clearly needs to present itself as an advocate of simple Islamic values, while shedding its image as an elitist party associated with big business, money politics and vested interests. An UMNO worker's remarks on the election campaign in Trengganu are telling: "These Pas leaders, they come to every kampung [village]. They talk to everyone and have tea or meals with the people. Our UMNO leaders arrive in a Mercedes, tell everyone what they should do, eat by themselves in a special airconditioned room and drive off." Says political columnist James Wong Wing On: "It has been known for some time that the class struggle - the lower classes versus the upper classes - is expressed through religious forms."

But there are forces pulling the party in the other direction. The increasingly assertive Chinese have expressed concern over UMNO "going Islamic." Gerakan, one of BN's Chinese components, recently said that it had clarified this point with Deputy PM Abdullah, who gave assurances that UMNO would remain secular.

While it sorts out its future, UMNO is also looking for ways to stem the rise of Pas. It has been active with its negative campaigning, painting Pas as an anti-business party bent on imposing its conservative Islamic agenda on the country. The state-controlled press has played up statements from Pas leaders suggesting they might ban alcohol and gambling and impose an Islamic tax on non-Muslims.

DAP parliamentarian Tan Seng Giaw counters: "All the laws that prohibit Muslims from drinking and gambling, as well as the establishment of the International Islamic University, have been initiated by UMNO." Still, it is apparent the DAP is not entirely comfortable with Pas and its policies. Lim Kit Siang, who stepped down as DAP secretary-general on Dec. 2 to take responsibility for the party's poor performance in the elections, said in his resignation letter that the new political equation effected by the rise of Pas would pose a threat to a "democratic secular Malaysia."

Pas rejects such suggestions. Mustafa insists: "Islam is not here to take away the rights of the Chinese or other minorities. What has been provided for by the Constitution will be respected." The DAP has announced that it would monitor whether Pas really abides by its promise.

BN leaders point to such differences as evidence that the opposition will break up, but Pas maintains that it will not abandon its alliance partners. For his part, Tan thinks that Pas should temper its radical image: "If Pas can moderate the statements that are anathema to non-Muslims, then the opposition alliance can hold." And not only that. If, indeed, Pas is able to present itself under a more moderate light, it would give UMNO one more thing to worry about as it goes about its soul-searching.

Last changed: December 13, 1999